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|A CurtainUp Review
This one-person performance piece about two of the twentieth century's best-known personalities, Elsa Maxwell and J. Edgar Hoover, is a feast for trivial pursuit fans. Allusions to the rich, and famous and infamous come rushing out of Bob Kingdom's mouth like bullets out of a semi-automatic. His rather ingenious pairing of Elsa, celebrity party giver and gossip columnist, and Edgar, creator and director of the FBI is not nearly as incongruous as it may sound. It is a portrait of the ugly duckling's reign over the beautiful, and the slimey toad's triumphantly invading the privacy of everyone.
Both dominated very different spheres of the social order but both were masters of ferreting out secrets and controlling public opinion in ways that dominate our lives as much, if not more, than ever. Both were eccentrics with private lives that were in direct opposition to their very public disdain for all whose behavior deviated from the "norm".
Mr. Kingdom and his collaborator Neil Bartlett have fashioned a fact-filled and chillingly amusing script out of these parallel lives (Maxwell died in 1963; Hoover in 1972). Except for the fact that he's plump and plain, Kingdom doesn't really resemble Elsa; nor for that matter Hoover. Yet, he has captured enough of the persona and general look so that the print dress and pearls for Elsa and the tuxedo for Edgar make for an aura of realness -- even for those in the audience old enough to remember the role models.
A shiny art deco desk and a large semicircular scrim window serve as a backdrop for Kingdom's two-tiered dark docu-comedy. At first we have Elsa gossiping away in the Waldorf-Astoria suite where she lived rent-free for years and broadcast the radio version of her "Party Line" column. Tidbits about movie stars, millionaires and former and future royals are interspersed with references to that "nicest, suavest and most charming" of men, J. Edgar Hoover. This leads to the final part of the intermissionless eighty minutes, when Elsa metamorphoses into Edgar -- his penchant for cross-dressing wittily implied in the print dress, baggy stockings and slippers still evident beneath the tux.
Kingdom seems fonder of the gossip than the G-Man who's not really such a He-Man and after this weaker second segment returns to the lady. In a final bravura split personality dialogue Kingdom switches from Edgar (the shoulder draped with the tuxedo jacket) to Elsa (the shoulder without the jacket).
While Kingdom succeeds in establishing the links between these two people and their surveillance techniques, he is less successful when he tries to break the fourth wall by addressing the audience. Unlike the currently reigning Broadway master-mistress of interacting with the paying customers, Dame Edna, Kingdom seems to stiffen up during these attempts. (He should also take off his wristwatch which flickers distractingly against the orchestra's wall!).
Finally, fame being as fleeting as it is, one can't help wondering how many people who were born after 1960 would really know and care about Elsa Maxwell or the household name celebrities of her day. Thus, while the message is cleverly conceived, smoothly directed and relevant, the messengers may limit Elsa Edgar's audience appeal .