Sure, I knew that the star of Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies was going to be a woman. But there was still a part of me that gave a little stutter when I saw Jessica Sherr walk onto the stage, about to embark on her journey to embody this legendary actress. There’s a reason why Bette Davis is a favorite of drag performers, a la Cher, Judy and Liza. Because legends like these have enormous shoes to fill and sometimes the dainty feet of a woman just slosh around in those heels. However, I wasn’t here to see a drag show. I was here to see why Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies. Unfortunately this “comedy solo show” (which had very little comedy) never really clarified that for me.
We’ve all had at least a passing acquaintance with Davis – she was, after all, a huge movie icon and has become part of the pop-culture lexicon. But when one steps back and takes stock of the idea of telling her story one must realize that she was born in 1908; with a Hollywood career that began in 1930 -meaning her story takes place closer to 100 years ago at this point than anything contemporary. So, while she herself is a fascinating woman, much of her story is a bit long in the tooth. Still, a good story is a good story, and one that is worth telling – if done well – will captivate no matter how old the subject matter. Sadly, I’m not sure this play was worthy of its indomitable subject.
That Jessica Sherr resembles Davis is undeniable – as her website will remind you before it even loads properly, She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes, and there are truly moments when she flashes a look or strikes a pose and channels the actress so fully that it’s a bit unnerving. However, aside from a few moments of channeling is this enough to hang a whole play upon?
Written by Sherr this is undoubtedly a love letter to a woman we are meant to see for all her humanity, not just the larger-than-life persona that she, her studio, and her fans created. You will see no echoes of the “It’s going to be a bumpy night” Davis or the “But you are, Blanche … you are” Davis whom drooling fans mimic with such glee. Rather, Sherr presents the broken woman who tires of being the head of household to a lazy husband … the woman who battles Jack Warner when he insists she act against type … the woman who sneaks away for romantic trysts with Howard Hughes, fully knowing she’s sharing him with Katharine Hepburn. Most of these memories are recounted as Davis sits alone, chatting to her Oscars and to herself. A little contrived but not altogether unheard of for a show of this type.
Overall the entire production lacks the actual pop that Bette Davis herself had. Director Theresa Gambacorta allows the story to unfold slowly, so slowly in fact that there were moment when I (and apparently other audience members, based on quizzical whisperings) were wondering if Ms. Sherr was pausing dramatically or searching for the hook to the next scene. Long stretches with no dialogue in a solo show never feel comfortable.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a Bette Davis fan since childhood, and was hoping to find one of my glamorous Hollywood icons brought thrillingly to life in front of me. Unfortunately, I was treated to an hour of rather uninteresting anecdotes. Between the bold title and the even bolder subject matter I was expecting a night of thrilling theatre. Or at least a bit of a bumpy night. Unfortunately, this is one piece of theatre that just didn’t deliver. With several of Sissies performances already sold out I’m curious – is it the actual production that’s garnering such accolades or is it the enduring strength of Ms. Davis’ charisma that is moving ticket sales? Actually, I think I know the answer.
BETTE DAVIS AIN’T FOR SISSIES
Writer: Jessica Sherr
Director: Theresa Gambacorta