Me and Jezebel
Classic film aficionados know that Bette Davis is a screen legend. "All About Eve," "Now, Voyager," "Dark Victory," "Of Human Bondage," "Jezebel" and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" are among her numerous film credits. But what was she like near the end of her life, when her screen appearances were mostly limited to forgettable TV movies every year or so? What was this film titan like every day?
In the summer of 1985, writer Elizabeth Fuller and her husband John got to find out, when they welcomed friend-of-a-friend Bette Davis into their Weston, Connecticut home for a two-day visit that became a month-long ordeal. That memorable time is currently being dramatized in the two-person play "Me and Jezebel," now playing Off-Broadway at the Snapple Theater.
Not surprisingly, Bette Davis was a challenging houseguest. Always with a cigarette in hand and a scathing quip at the ready, she insinuated herself into the Fullers’ lives and took over the house. She would make long distance calls that she never offered to pay for, invite herself along to everything (including their anniversary dinner) and disrupt Elizabeth and John’s work without apology. She also spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about fellow screen star Joan Crawford.
"Me and Jezebel" tells a highly entertaining story. In her author’s note in the play program, Elizabeth Fuller assures us that all the incidents in the play really happened, and there is indeed a ring of authenticity to the proceedings. But unless she has a photographic memory, one must assume that much of the dialogue is to her credit, and it is as sharp and witty as befits the infamously tart-tongued Bette Davis.
Elizabeth Fuller originally introduced "Me and Jezebel" as a book, and though I haven’t read it, I can imagine that in some ways that form might serve the story better. (Somehow simply imaging the real Bette Davis sitting in a McDonald’s with Elizabeth and her McNugget-munching 4-year-old son Christopher is more satisfying than seeing it depicted onstage.)
The great story and writing aside, unfortunately "Me and Jezebel" does have serious casting issues. Elizabeth Fuller plays herself in the production, and she’s clearly not an actress (even Bette makes a dig about that fact late in the show). There is a certain pleasure in seeing the author relate her own tale, as she conveys the sense of even-I-can’t-believe-this-really-happened-to-me. But her unnaturalness as a performer is very evident and often distracting.
Also distracting is the actor playing Bette. Given Bette Davis’ status as a gay icon, it’s not terribly surprising that the production would choose to cast a male performer (the talented Kelly Moore) who has a lot of experience playing the movie icon. It is especially unsurprising when you consider that casting men in iconic, strong female parts have become increasingly common, from Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" to the upcoming "Twelfth Night" with Mark Rylance as Olivia.
But there’s no mistaking that this is a man pretending to be a woman -- an extremely famous woman at that -- and for what reason, really? Surely there are some older, fabulously funny actresses out there who could have killed in the part. And if we’re going to see the real Elizabeth onstage, why not pair her with an actress that could more realistically be mistaken for the real Bette Davis?
That said, once you get used to Moore’s drag take on Bette, the character can be a lot of fun to watch. He gets many laughs out of moments, such as when Bette indulges Elizabeth’s attempt to get in touch with the spiritual side. He also develops a very amusing relationship with the impressionable young Christopher, a Bette Davis impersonator in the making.
It is actually when Moore shows Bette’s vulnerable side that he is often at his best, though, allowing us to see that she can be tender and compassionate. This usually comes out in moments where Bette reveals her hurt over her daughter’s tell-all memoir, or when Elizabeth and Bette are bonding.
Most touching is when we start to realize that Elizabeth isn’t just putting up with houseguest-from-hell Bette’s eccentricities because she’s starstruck. Elizabeth’s long-standing love of Screen Legend Bette Davis was an interest shared with her beloved grandmother, whom she fondly mentions often. The newfound closeness with Real-Life Bette Davis serves as a way to revive cherished memories with her late grandma.
Along the way, Elizabeth Fuller also got to create many, frequently hilarious, new memories, which are now captured in "Me and Jezebel." There is no question that it is a very funny play, but hopefully in the future it will receive a better production.
"Me and Jezebel" runs through October 26 at the Snapple Theater at 210 West 50th Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-921-7862 or visit www.snappletheater.com.