VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
The Empty Space Theatre at Broadway Performance Hall 1625 Broadway, 547-7500 or 292-ARTS, $20-$30 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 7 p.m. Sun.; 2 p.m. select matinees Sat.-Sun. No show Sat., Jan. 19 previews begin Fri., Jan. 4 runs Wed., Jan. 9-Sat., Feb. 9
"IT'S BASICALLY playing house, and you get to be who you always wanted to be," Burton Curtis says, explaining the simple hook behind his affectionate staging of a trash classic. "Well, this little boy gets to play Valley of the Dolls and be Anne Welles, only he gets the cast of Valley of the Dolls to support him. It's like Through the Looking Glass."
Curtis, one of the theater scene's most ingenious talents, has turned his fond reminiscences of watching Valley of the Dolls on television as a child into potential comic pay dirt. Adapted from the gloriously inept 1967 film version with co-writers Jason Cannon and Allison Narver (and co-directed with Narver), Curtis' Empty Space production of Jacqueline Susann's delirious show-business-girls-gone-awry tale envisions a young boy—played by Nick Garrison, the dynamic Hedwig and the Angry Inch showstopper—whose yearnings place him inside the movie as lead innocent Anne Welles. The production, says Curtis, is "a parody . . . but not a roast," and that distinction, according to Garrison, will allow the lampooning to pay subtle tribute to "what informs your ideas of glamour . . . and life." Skirting the edge of camp, rather than diving headfirst into it, will, they hope, heighten the universality of dreaming about being someone else.
"We've avoided camp in the sense that we aren't acknowledging that it's a boy in a dress in the course of the story," Curtis says. "He gets to play the character he's always wanted to play."
Garrison is the perfect choice for such a challenge. Anyone who has seen him in drag embracing the delusions of a character, as opposed to a gender, knows that a revelatory performance, even an outrageous one, can reach far beyond concepts of masculine or feminine.
"Hedwig was way more masculine than most of the male roles I've played," he says. "It never is about gender for me. It's completely this character."
But surely, you think, isn't the whole idea of appreciating Valley of the Dolls— a film that, among other howlers, features a ferocious, addictively abysmal performance by Patty Duke—a bit, well, camp?
"There's nothing wrong with camp," Garrison counters carefully. "I love camp. Camp has gotten a bad rap. And there are elements of camp in this. It's not that we're taking this seriously—it's totally ridiculous. It's [just that] it's actually quite faithful to the movie and to what they were trying to do in the movie—you know, Patty Duke was going for her second Oscar, and Lee Grant is acting her ass off, and everyone was really into it."
"They thought they were in the next Gone With the Wind," Curtis agrees.
The movie does, in fact, have grave delusions of grandeur. It's a ponderously straight-faced affair, but the elephantine self-importance is what makes its hysteria so delicious: Somehow, beyond all sense or reason, everyone means it. That skewed veracity leaned Curtis and Narver away from a blatant all- drag production.
"It's been done to death in town, and it's kind of an easy choice," Curtis explains. "The other thing is, it's a great gal vehicle, and there are funny, talented gals in town."
They've found those women, all right. Sarah Harlett will be going for the gold as Duke's Neely O'Hara, new Seattleite Michelle Lewis is poor Sharon Tate's bimbo Jennifer North, and the divine Suzanne Bouchard (who recently walked away with A Little Night Music) gets to sink her teeth into Susan Hayward's scenery-chewing Helen Lawson.
"The whole project is an homage to the incredibly earnest hard work that everyone in that movie was doing," Curtis says sincerely, before laughing at it all. "God bless 'em, everyone."