First Nighter: Kathleen Chalfant Convincing as 'Rose' of the Kennedys, Steven Sater's Tedious 'New York Animals' With Burt Bacharach Tunes

Jo Lambert is the reason to see, the Steven Sater play, at New Ohio Theatre, with songs by Burt Bacharach and Slater. I'm not convinced, however, that it's a good enough reason.
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They never stop coming: the Dysfunctional American Family plays. In the last few weeks, we've had The Humans, Lost Girls and Taylor Mac's out-dysfunction-them-all Hir. You can also include Dada Woof Papa Hot and Steve, now that the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriages and as a seeming result, works about dysfunctional same-sex marriages look to be headed our way in increasing numbers.

Keeping all that in mind, it still may be that the most unlikely dysfunctional-family opus among us at the moment is Laurence Leamer's one-woman monologue Rose at the Clurman, in which the always impeccable Kathleen Chalfant impersonates the seemingly always impeccable Rose Kennedy.

We're in Anya Klepikov's notion of a Hyannis Port morning room (taken from a photograph perhaps) on a late July 1969 afternoon, which those with sharp historical recall will instantly pinpoint as just after the tragic Ted Kennedy-Mary Jo Kopechne Chappaquiddick incident.

Rose Kennedy, wearing a beautifully tailored white pants suit (that, in this case, the forever tasteful Jane Greenwood has picked out for her), is presiding. She's passing time while waiting for son Ted to return from sailing. Insisting he's due any moment, she often gazes out the large upstage windows that also double as screens on which projection designers Klepikov and Leanne Arnold frequently throw photographs taken from Rose Kennedy's girlhood through to that day.

Beginning her discourse to the audience that she's startled to see before her and then remembering she'd been expecting a Dublin ladies auxiliary group, she reminisces about her life from birth as the daughter of Boston Mayor John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald right up to the too recent disaster and its immediate aftermath--reporters and camerapersons now outside the ground on watch.

Were her disclosures issued by anyone else, they might be considered gossip, but coming from her most of the recollecting could fall under the labels confession, admissions and, occasionally, boasts and defenses. From time to time, she leafs through photograph albums she's retrieved for the stroll down memory lane she's allowing herself.

In the course of the 90-minute intermissionless talk to us ladies auxiliary members, Rose holds nothing back. Candor is her guiding tenet. And while going over, for instance, womanizing husband Joe Kennedy's decision to have daughter Rosemary lobotomized--a surgery that famously went wrong (Kate Clifford's Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter just published)--she reveals one source of the accumulating resentments plaguing her life as the genuinely long-suffering matriarch.

For ladies auxiliary members wondering about the back problems that Jack Kennedy kept secret from the populace, that's here. How did Rose feel about Joe's dalliance with Gloria Swanson? No words minced about either him or the silent-screen star, although Rose does defend Joe from the bootlegging claims made against him in the Charlestoning '20s.

Several times during Rose's unburdening the phone rings, and, politely excusing herself, she removes a clip-on earring to answer it. Every time, it's a daughter or a daughter-in-law--Pat Lawford, Eunice Shriver, Joan Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Joan Kennedy calls twice, and after reassuring the importuning woman that Ted loves her during the second call, Rose hangs up and vouchsafes her belief that, rather than sailing solo in Hyannis Port, Ted should be with his wife and children.

Verifying many of the rumors that swirled around the Kennedy dynasty during their apparent reign in the nation (now replaced by the Bush clan?), Rose makes plain that, despite how well the family often performed in the public arena, they were as dysfunctional as any American family going (possibly more dysfunctional), and in that capacity were/are symbolic of American families everywhere--as symbolic, say, as Elizabeth II's family is of the British family.

It would be unfair to itemize all the dish served in Rose. Having the brimming dish so liberally passed around as if from a first-person source is both the fun and the distress of Leamer's piece. But it's quite likely that auditors will wonder how reliable the heaps of information are.

Very likely, since Leamer's play--it does come across as more of a play than many one-person stage gabfests do--is based on 40 hours of tapes Rose Kennedy recorded for her ghost-ridden autobiography as well as from his previous books on the crowd. So those questioning the veracity of a tirade about how angry she is at having acceded to living in a world dictated by men that Rose gives into towards the end of her chat might well be reassured that it's to be found in one form or another on those tapes.

What about the minute Rose takes to rip up the love letters from Swanson that Joe kept in a pretty box she uncovered? That's one of those things that, true or not, a ladies auxiliary member might want to believe.

As directed by Caroline Reddick Lawson, Chalfant keeps on the move. Taller than Rose and not really a convincing lookalike--although Tom Watson's curly black wig helps--Chalfant presents an American Mother Courage, a survivor of four children's deaths who's been plagued by perhaps more sorrow than joy but has had to soldier on and will continue to function with a straight, defiant back as long as she's able.
Jo Lambert is the reason to see New York Animals, the Steven Sater play, at New Ohio Theatre, with songs by Burt Bacharach and Slater. I'm not convinced, however, that it's a good enough reason. That's even if the Bacharach contributions are arranged with an ear towards his 1969 Promises, Promises tuner.

Of the three outstanding new ballads (in a larger score that's musical directed by Debra Barsha at the head of a band also called New York Animals), the last one is titled "When Will It End?" As it happens, I spent most of the two acts silently asking the same desperate question of no one in particular.

Sater's work, staged by Eric Tucker in a cabaret setting, consists of several sketches involving tiresome New Yorkers. As they accumulate, the skits eventually depict the lives of characters interrelated one way or another. They're collectively unappealing and ultimately serve as an incentive for us New York lovers to leave town for a bit to regain equilibrium, perhaps after repeated hearings of Bobby Short singing Cole Porter's "I Happen to Like New York"). I can think of yet another split-the-crazy-burg incentive: this production.

For the record, the actors persevering through the script are Blanca Camacho, Ramsey Faragallah, Edmund Lewis, Susannah Millonzi and Tucker himself.

As for Lambert, you can find her on YouTube singing Tom Waits, and if Bacharach is looking for his 21th-century Dionne Warwick, here she is.

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