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A CurtainUp Review
The Tailor-Made Man

Two plays about the early days of Hollywood have arrived in town simultaneously: Epic Proportions landed at the Helen Hayes in the theater district on a wave of publicity The Tailor-Made Man slipped less conspicuously into the Torchlight Theatre Company's upstairs Centre Stage on West twenty-first Street. The first, a comedy, wasn't nearly as funny as it should have been. The second, a bio-drama of a 1930s actor who defied the moral codes that prevailed by living openly with his lover Jimmy Shields, is the more interesting and memorable of the two. Yet, it also didn't quite live up to its intriguing advance publicity.

Where Epic Proportions has been given the full technicolor treatment, The Tailor-Made Man is a strictly black and white, B-budget production Much as I'd like to report that less triumphs over more, playwright director Claudio Macor's behind the scenes look at Hollywood when it was ruled by the likes of Louis B. Mayer, and the starry glamour of Carole Lombard and Pola Negri cries for a more dynamic approach to overcome the constraints of venue and budget, and in several instances, actors more able to tap into the nuances of the characters.

Matt Walton acquits himself very well as William Haines, the more dashing and flamboyant of the two romantic leads. Today it is the slings and arrows of his relationship with Shields that are emembered while his movies are unlikely to be on anyone's list of memorable golden oldies. It's easy to see why the uptight Jimmy Shields (Dennis Matthews) found him irresistible. While Matthews' Jimmy, eventually warms to his role as the more serious, less inclined to roam partner he never fully taps into the pain that is part of his relationship with Haines -- especially, during the latter's glory days as a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer matinee idol.

Haines came to Hollywood in 1922 after winning a "new faces" award, The cynicism of the world he enters as a contract player is embodied in the homophobic mogul, Louis B. Mayer (J. M. McDonough) and his smooth-talking lackey, a spin master named Howard Strickland (Roger Rathburn). Mayer had no problem dictating strict codes of conduct even as he indulged in more than a few vices of his own (rumor has it that his womanizing included an attempt to seduce one of America's favorite child stars) . He and the slick-as-oil Strickland embraced Haines as a potential star whose looks were "tailor-made to get the girl in the last act."

Haines' relationship with Shields was based on real feeling. His relationship with the studio moguls was tied to his ratings and his willingness to hide his private life behind a "man's man" front. It is to preserve this facade that Strickland sought to promote a marriage with the Polish "vamp" of the silent films, Pola Negri. Rathburn captures Strickland's snake oil superficiality convincingly but McDonough's Louis B. Mayer makes one wish for Judd Hirsch who played the part in its initial incarnation as a radio play, or perhaps someone like Lee Wilcoff who has done well by other pompous blusterers.

Mr. Marcor uses Shields as a narrator to move the story forward -- from the almost simultaneous blossoming of the mens' romance and Haines' movie career; to his public infidelities which almost end the relationships and eventually do end his acting career; to their final triumph, a successful joint venture as interior designers for the rich and famous and a sturdy and enduring relationship. Given the physical and budget constraints of the production this device works well.

Phil Lea's set design, a few chairs and a desk, hardly evokes the opulence of the era -- except perhaps as a metaphor for its moral shabbiness. Beth Niemczyk's stylish costumes do provide a touch of glitter for the three glamorous women who were part of the Haines and Shields milieu -- William Randolph Hearst's mistress Marian Davis (Sarah Burns), Carole Lombard (Helen Buck) and the sultry Pola Negri (Franca Barchiesi). These characters, as well as Kelly Corvese as a Hollywood writer, Victor Darro, add heft to the script. Buck, who also doubles as a secretary and appeared in the play's 1996 London, stands out as the outspoken Lombard. However, the attempt to beef up this bare bones production with a tango choreographed by Elizabeth Blake for Pola Negri, is a diversion that simply doesn't work.

This production of The Tailor-Made Man doesn't warrant the raves the play collected during its London run. The cast is too much of a mixed bag and the staging excessively spartan and at times, static. Still, it's an interesting slice of Hollywood history and as such worth seeing.

The Tailor-Made Man was inspired by a chapter entitled "The White Legion and the Purple Dyed Poodle" in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon II. A mass market paperback of this volume is still available ad widely read. For purchasing details go here

Other early movie day shows reviewed at CurtainUp: Epic Proportions. . .Merton of the Movies. . . Mack and Mabel
Written and directed by Claudio. Macor
Starring Matt Walton as William Haines and Dennis Matthews as Jimmy Shields
With: Roge r Rathbone as Howard Strickling; J.M. McDonough as Louis B. Mayer; Kelly Corvese as Victor Darro; Sarah Burns as Marion Davies; Helen Buck as Carole Lombard; Rick Meese as Roderick; and Franca Barchiesi as Pola Negri
Set Design: Phil Lea
Costume Design: Beth Niemczyk Choreography: Elizabeth Blake·
Torchlight Theatre Co., Centre Stage , 48 W. 21st St. (5th/6th Aves) 929-2228
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission
9/30/99-10/24/99; opening 10/03/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/02/99 performance

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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