Arts & Entertainment » Theater

"Me and Jezebel"

The woman who came to dinner


"Darling, there are no other stars."

That line is ascribed to Bette Davis in "Me and Jezebel," the opening production in Blackfriars Theatre's 64th season. The show tells the allegedly true story of what happened when Davis — the legendary movie star who won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, received 10 Oscar nominations, and who was the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute — came to a fan's house for dinner. That fan was Elizabeth Fuller, an author who eventually turned the story of Davis's visit into a novel, which was adapted into a one-person play, which turned into a two-person show that successfully mixes comedy and drama.

The production at Blackfriars is a charming piece that should be of interest to anyone with an interest in Old Hollywood, or who perhaps has a house guest who simply will not leave.

The story is set in the early 1980's, prior to Davis filming the pilot of Aaron Spelling's "Hotel" but after the debut of Kim Carnes' chart-topping pop song in her honor, "Bette Davis Eyes." Fuller eagerly tells the story of what happened when she accidentally became acquainted with her childhood cinematic idol and had her over for dinner, which somehow led to Davis staying for a night or two. Which then became three or four. Which somehow turned into two weeks, and then subsequently zipped past that deadline. As the movie star and her host become closer, the two share their lives. Davis wrestles with the publication of her daughter's "Mommie Dearest"-style tell-all while Fuller navigates an increasingly exasperated husband and relives memories of her late grandmother. She also takes more than a few pages out of Bette Davis's diva playbook.

The play nicely balances the serious emotional notes with some very funny lines, most of them stemming from Davis ragging on various celebrity contemporaries or dishing the dirt on her past projects. Humphrey Bogart and Paul Newman get called out a few times, but Davis's arch-nemesis, Joan Crawford, gets the most frequent licks from Davis's acid tongue. If you're not familiar with the stars or the movies in question most of the jokes won't land, but when they do they're hilarious. And it's interesting to get a fading A-lister's take on the nature of American celebrity. ("Once they stop asking for your autograph you're finished," Davis says in the play; Miley Cyrus just gave an interview to Rolling Stone that eerily echoed that sentiment.)

Many stagings of "Me and Jezebel" feature men in drag in at least the Bette Davis role. This makes sense, because Davis was essentially a drag queen trapped in a woman's body — larger than life, in your face, and ready to let you have it. For the Blackfriars production, director John Haldoupis cast two of Rochester's top female illusionists, Ed Popil (a seasoned veteran of local stages, both as a man and in his female alter ego Kasha Davis) and Tom Smalley (better known as local drag diva Aggy Dune). The two of them perform frequently in the Big Wigs show at various venues, and their chemistry and comfort with each other shines through consistently.

Popil has the larger role as Fuller. He also has to take on several secondary roles, ranging from a 4-year-old child to a wizened Irish grandmother, which he communicates effectively through mannerisms and voice (no costume changes). Popil has a natural warmth about him, and Kasha's "celebrity housewife" vibe works well in this show. He also looked absolutely stunning in the performance I attended, especially in the va-va-voom dress sported in the second act. Popil tripped over lines on occasion, but immediately got back on track.

Smalley has the flashier role as Bette Davis, and he does the screen siren proud. There are times when the light hits Smalley just right and he very much approximates Davis herself (no make-up, wig, or costumer designers are listed in the program, but they are terrific across the board). Smalley does an exaggerated take on Davis's mannered speaking so that it comes across over the top, but still instantly recognizable as Bette Davis. And he is so funny. His Davis is bitchy, dismissive, arrogant — yet still quite vulnerable at times — and Smalley is fully committed to the role all the way through to the final bows. The program bio suggests that Smalley is interested in doing more local acting work. Let's hope we see him on the stage again soon.

The direction by Haldoupis keeps the show moving quickly from one area of the set to another. The show includes numerous audio and lighting cues, all of which were flawlessly executed.

I went into the show already familiar with Bette Davis from "All About Eve" and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and afterwards found myself desperate to see more of this unconventional, gutsy woman's work. I was especially interested in seeing her Oscar-winning turn in 1938's "Jezebel." I was chagrined to discover that only two of her films are available on instant streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime (one is "Of Human Bondage," which gets a great reference in "Me and Jezebel"). I wonder what Ms. Davis would have to say about that....