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|A CurtainUp Review
Star Billing isn't a play by any stretch of the imagination. It's not really one of those one-man shows where the soloist taking star billing transforms himself into a multitude of voices and characters to tell his story. While there are enough amusing moments to fill the house with hearty chuckles neither is it a standup comedy. The most accurate definition would probably be standup autobiographical lecture.
In you've never heard of Alexander H. Cohen, he's been a producer for more than half a century. Besides a long laundry list of Broadway and London hits and misses, he's spearheaded many television productions, including the first Tony Award telecasts in 1967. Now a septegenarian, he's neither tall or handsome or a particularly dynamic speaker. But he's got a wry and endearingly self-deprecating wit and a treasure trove of anecdotes to weave into his talking memoir. What's more there seem to be enough show biz buffs interested in hearing them to fill up the Douglas Fairbanks Theater on the Sunday and Monday nights when the house would otherwise be dark. This show that isn't a show has in fact been extended to January 4th.
When I decided to check out this non-show for myself last Sunday evening, I expected to find the Douglas Fairbanks, one of the larger spaces on Theater Row, half empty. Surprise, surprise -- except for two or three rows at the rear, the house was filled to the brim . And while my sense of this as a talking memoir masqerading as a theatrical one-man show, was confirmed, Mr. Cohen managed to be amusing and informative for close to an hour and a half, without leaving his "set" (a chair next to a table with a glass of whatever and a bottle of Evian) more than once or twice to pace the stage.
He regales us with anecdotes ,starting with his birth "at age sixteen at a matinee", moving on to his initial producing ventures and his work with stars he likes (Maurice Chevalier), doesn't like (Marlene Dietrich) and detests (Jerry Lewis). The text which his beloved wife Hildy Parks helped him to write, and from which he reads in a rather nuts and bolts fashion, also ranges over his interactions with President and Mrs. Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and his colleague and sparring partner David Merrick. His days as a television show producer (notably the first telecast of the Tonys and the CBS, Night of 100 Stars are equally star-studded and not without the requisite horn tooting.
Before he takes his last sip of water and exits his first gig as an actor, he concludes with a lecture about the unhappy economics of the current theater. Does he offer solutions? Not really? Hopefully he will fire up enough people in the audience (many of whom seem to be in the business) to keep their thinking caps firmly planted on their heads.
As already indicated, there's not much to say about the staging of this theatrical oddity. But to anticipate carps about the lack of production values, Cohen, ever the producer, has made the most out of nothing with his notes on sets, lighting, costumes, etc. which are included in our usual production details box for your amusement. .