There is much sadness in "Hollywood Arms," the play Carol Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, wrote about Burnett's early life. The story itself, about Burnett's alcoholic mother, is very sad. It is also deeply sad that Hamilton died while the show was in production in Chicago. But the saddest thing is that the play itself, potentially so powerful, never comes into focus. It has a disjointed quality. Its short scenes seem more like isolated comic sketches than building blocks in a larger structure. It isn't until almost the end of the first act that we realize that Burnett's mother, Louise, an aspiring writer in Hollywood, is an alcoholic. Until then, Louise is so ill-defined that it almost comes as a surprise that she is the pivotal character in the play. When the play begins, in 1941, Louise has left her 10-year-old daughter, Helen, in Texas with her mother, Nanny. Louise, who imagines she's building a career as a Hollywood reporter, sends for Helen and Nanny and rents them a room in the same frowzy hotel where she lives. They are occasionally visited by her ex-husband, Jody, who is also an alcoholic. Louise's efforts to make money fail, and she, too, takes up the bottle. By the second act, 10 years later, Helen is in college and has started to act. As actually happened with Burnett, a wealthy benefactor sees her. Insisting on anonymity, he gives her $1,000 to go to New York. We know how the story ends. That the play works at all is due in part to the enormous affection any sensible person feels for Burnett. At the same time, you wonder why it seems so feebly constructed. Michelle Pawk conveys the ugliness of the drunken Louise, but also manages to evoke sympathy. Frank Wood, who won a Tony for his portrayal of an alcoholic in "Side Man," is equally touching here. Linda Lavin is extremely funny as the self-involved, nasty Nanny, an impressively disciplined performance. Leslie Hendrix is splendid as the hotel receptionist. Patrick Clear is solid as Louise's dull suitor, and Nicolas King is funny as the young Helen's rooftop playmate. As Helen, Donna Lynne Champlin has some good moments, but she does not have the comic talent to bring a fairly leaden monologue to life. (Can it actually have been the one Burnett once wowed audiences with?) Walt Spangler's set has a properly drab quality. Judith Dolan's costumes have period charm. As you divide your focus between the stage and your watch, you wish "Hollywood Arms" was still out of town and there was still time to make it work.
In the theater, no talent on earth can overcome the heavy hand of mediocrity.
Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett's new play, "Hollywood Arms" - despite the extraordinary talents of Linda Lavin, Michele Pawk and Harold Prince - takes mediocrity to undue depths.
The play, which opened last night at the Cort Theatre, is not so much bad as mind-crunchingly ordinary.
One wonders what those three - and for that matter, Burnett - were thinking when they lent their talents to a venture with such a dire capacity for inducing boredom.
Burnett and her late daughter have based their play on Burnett's 1986 memoir "One More Time," and "Hollywood Arms" gives us a picture of three generations: Nanny, a matriarchal grandmother (the formidable Lavin); Louise, her alcoholic daughter (Pawk), who dream of becoming the next Louella Parsons; and Helen (Sara Niemietz in 1941, and Donna Lynne Champlin 10 years later), who dreams of becoming a female Danny Kaye.
The names have been changed, presumably to relieve the actresses playing Burnett from the awesome task of having to actually suggest Burnett.
Alcohol seems to be the fuel by which this Depression-era family is staving off depression.
Nanny likes a drink or so, Louise becomes increasingly sauce-sodden as the story proceeds, while her divorced husband, Helen's father Jody (the brilliantly vacant-presenced Frank Wood) wanders idly between rehabilitation and falling-down drunk.
The play more or less ends with the star-maker appearance of Helen/Burnett on "The Ed Sullivan Show" before informing us when Louise and Nanny die.
What we are left with is one of those inspirational but two-dimensional profiles in survival, the plucky kid struggling to rise from a squalid background.
But where is the wit?
Prince has drilled his forces to optimum effect - every performance is gem-stone polished - and were it a musical, he and his admirable cast might conceivably have gotten away with it.
But what we are left with is not enough, not nearly enough.
''HOLLYWOOD ARMS'' is the story of a girl who spends a troubled childhood in a seedy apartment almost literally in the shadow cast by Hollywood lights, but grows up to become a star. It is, in other words, a Hollywood story in every sense of the word, an irony-free American dreamscape of the sort that the movies so love to fabricate and the world so loves to swallow.
The play, however, is drawn from the life of an actual star, Carol Burnett, who with her daughter Carrie Hamilton wrote this stage adaptation of her 1986 memoir, ''One More Time.'' In its Broadway incarnation, which opened last night at the Cort Theater, the show, under the direction of Harold Prince, has made strides from the version that appeared in the spring at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Strains of seriousness and ambition are more clearly evident.
For one thing, the pain that must have accompanied the stressful penury of Ms. Burnett's early days is rendered much more credibly. The alcohol-debilitated household, with a sternly penny-pinching grandmother and an increasingly embittered mother perpetually battling for the love of, and authority over, the young girl, now feels like a weighty burden for her to have overcome. And the performance by Michele Pawk as Louise, the character who is at the heart (if not the center) of the play and who is based on Ms. Burnett's mother, may well be the best on Broadway now, Edie Falco's included.
But like the kind of teenage girl that Ms. Burnett suggests she never was, the play still suffers through a million identity crises. It reaches for the organic independence of inventive fiction but stays with the training wheels of the biographical format. One signal of this uncertainty is that the Carol character is called Helen, while Helen's parents are given the real names of Ms. Burnett's mother and father, Louise and Jody. And as if out of fear that the story won't hold up without a grounding in actual history, a clunky prologue has been added since Chicago, unnecessarily summarizing the lives of the characters up to the time the action of the play begins, just as a brief epilogue tells us what happens to two of them (big surprise: they die) after the play is over.
The play gives the most audience-pleasing lines and the over-the-title billing to Linda Lavin, who plays Nanny, Helen's crusty grandmother, and it gives Helen (played by Sara Niemietz as the first-act 10-year-old and by Donna Lynne Champlin in the second act, which begins 10 years later) the unassailable saintliness of a Hollywood heroine. But in doing so, it virtually obscures that the play's most credible and moving character -- and its only fully rounded one -- is Louise.
So a play that can't make up its mind whether to be a potent family saga or an episodic comedy worthy of a laugh track ends up ignoring what it has: a potentially bruising and affecting drama about the tough life of a woman in Hollywood in the 1940's and 50's. Instead, I found myself thinking more than once that ''Hollywood Arms'' is what would have resulted if television executives had gotten their hands on a script by O'Neill.
The play takes the form -- to borrow an idea from another writer of Irish descent -- of a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Or at least a portrait of the artist's household. The play ends with Helen, having moved to New York and gotten her first big break, returning home to rescue her younger sister from the poison of her mother and grandmother.
It begins in 1941, when Helen and her grandmother leave their home in San Antonio to join Louise in Hollywood, where, divorced from her alcoholic and tubercular husband, she has moved with aspirations of becoming a magazine writer. (''I come to praise Cesar, not to bury him,'' is her lead for a profile of Cesar Romero, which may explain why success eludes her.)
They find her in the residential hotel of the title, which has the famous Hollywood sign looming over it and the flashing marquee of the Lido visible from the roof. (As Walt Spangler's accurate but not terribly atmospheric set indicates, in 1941 the sign still read ''Hollywoodland.'')
That's the same roof to which the young Helen retreats to get into mischief with a neighbor, Malcolm (Nicolas King). And the same roof where Helen acts out her first show-biz dreams, doing impressions of radio hosts and their guest stars; in the high point of Miss Niemietz's creditable performance, she belts out a Jeanette MacDonald song in caricature, a moment that recalls the persona of Ms. Burnett more than any other in the show.
In the meantime, the apartment that Helen shares with Nanny (Louise lives down the hall, at least for a while) becomes a sitcom-worthy girls' club, with three generations of a family in the perennial seesaw between communal irritation and mutual affection, and occasional visits from other characters, who on television would be called guest stars.
They include Malcolm's easily angered mother, Dixie (Leslie Hendrix), who has become Louise's friend and confidante as well as her landlord, and Louise's feckless men: her former husband, Jody (Frank Wood), who is in and out of the hospital, and her future husband, Bill (Patrick Clear), who is too lovesick to care that Louise despises him for his spinelessness. The man who gets Louise pregnant with Helen's sister, Alice, and then disappears never shows his face in the play.
All of this takes place in a highly episodic fashion that suggests that the scenes have been selected as a synopsis of a life rather than conceived as a whole story. And Mr. Prince has polished every episode to a highly glossed pitch, giving each a clear purpose.
Sometimes this is rewarding, as in a second-act scene, both pungent and slapstick, in which a drunken Louise and an excited Nanny and Alice struggle to right the television antenna in time to watch Helen's appearance on ''The Ed Sullivan Show.'' Or in the first-act finale, in which Louise slaps young Helen in a fit of sloppy, alcoholic pique, and her realization of what she has done moves her to recognize that she needs to be cared for herself, so she accepts Bill's proposal of marriage. Mr. Prince puts all the principals onstage for this sequence: Nanny listening to the proposal behind a door and recognizing it as a mixed blessing, and Helen and Malcolm ending up on the roof, play-acting to escape from their depressing reality. It's a wonderful bit of directing; rarely is shmaltz rendered so layered and crystalline.
But sometimes Mr. Prince has just managed to accomplish shopworn effects very well; the police raid on the apartment after the family decides to earn extra money making book would have shone brilliantly on ''The Carol Burnett Show.'' And there are scenes (particularly in the overlong first act) that could bear eliminating, like the facts-of-life discussion between Nanny and young Helen. Indeed, almost every episode could have been trimmed if Mr. Prince had been as stringent a dramaturge as he has been a scene shaper.
The play is very well acted. As foils for Ms. Pawk, Mr. Wood and Mr. Clear are responsible for some of the play's most genuinely affecting moments. Emily Graham-Handley does a perky and convincing turn as Alice. And Ms. Champlin manages to be winning as the older Helen, whose gifts emerge in response to and in spite of her family, even though Helen's perfection -- as loyal daughter, granddaughter, older sister and prematurely responsible adult -- begins to seem ridiculous.
Ms. Lavin is, of course, a canny old pro, and with her gift for antic scene-stealing, she is perfectly cast here as the idiosyncratic grandma, even if her delivery as a Texan seems to come by way of the Upper West Side. A flatulent, skinflint pessimist with a fondness for Kate Smith, sherry and Christian Science, Nanny doesn't change one stripe from beginning to end, but Ms. Lavin makes a relentless character more than palatable. She's the kind of performer who can take a musty and predictable line like, ''From where I sit, $42 for tuition is a fortune,'' and earn the biggest laugh of the evening with it.
Still, for those who are paying close attention, both the play and the production belong to Ms. Pawk. A veteran actress who has appeared in Broadway musicals like ''Chicago'' and ''Cabaret,'' she is both attractive and sexy without being ingénue-ish or giving off the pheromones of youth: an older, less gym-toned Ashley Judd. She looks real, in other words.
And in a role calling for her to trace an arc from hopeful to fearful to determined to strident to bitter to dissipated to defeated; calling for her to make Louise face up to responsibilities as mother, neighbor, breadwinner, lover, wife, ex-wife and daughter; calling for her to begin as full to the brim with life and to demonstrate how life can slowly ebb until you barely recognize the person who once contained it, her performance is a tour de force.
It is especially notable because she is working here virtually without a spotlight: Ms. Lavin is the ostensible star; Ms. Niemietz and Ms. Champlin are ostensibly the subjects. But there is nothing ostensible about Ms. Pawk's contribution to ''Hollywood Arms'': she anchors it.
Here's a cliché-riddled scenario if ever there was one: A performer and her dysfunctional family live in Hollywood, grappling with alcoholism, drugs and relationship woes.
But in Hollywood Arms, the new Broadway play co-written by Carol Burnett and her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton, there's a twist. The performer actually is a prepubescent girl named Helen who entertains herself and frustrates others in her neighborhood — a poor, run-down section of Los Angeles — by producing make-believe radio shows on the roof of her apartment building.
The resident junkie, moreover, is Helen's maternal grandmother and primary caretaker, a devoted but eccentric woman hooked on tranquilizers and Christian Science.
And the alcoholic is the girl's mom, who lives down the hall, consumed by dreams of settling down with her married lover and making a name for herself as a celebrity reporter.
Based on a section of Burnett's memoir about growing up in a troubled but loving household, Arms, which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre, premiered in Chicago this past spring. Burnett, who lost Hamilton to cancer in January, has tightened up the script since then. There is now a prologue, delivered by an older Helen, providing helpful background, and subsequent scenes have been polished and made more taut.
What Burnett and director Hal Prince haven't changed is Arms' boldly sentimental spirit. The jokes aren't always fresh, and the dialogue can seem quaint and predictable. Even the incidental music that Robert Lindsey Nassif has composed to bridge the short scenes suggests a maudlin made-for-TV movie.
But the play is courageous and distinctive by virtue of its infectiously optimistic, forgiving tone. The very young Burnett, represented here by Helen, had to contend with a variety of what the jargon of contemporary psychobabble generally denotes as "issues." Yet Arms is refreshingly free of tortured self-analysis or whining. Helen and her relatives may not find neat solutions for their problems, but they tackle them, and each other, with the warmth, humor and healthy sense of perspective bred by genuine familial love.
The endearing cast, which Prince has guided with gentle compassion, serves these assets well. Linda Lavin plays Helen's grandmother with her usual accessible dryness, while the dynamic Michele Pawk manages to make Helen's mom, Louise, at once glamorous and heartbreaking. Frank Wood brings a likable pathos to the role of Helen's father, who also has a long-standing drinking problem, and Patrick Clear is a model of folksy chivalry and kindness as another man who tries to save Louise from herself.
Sara Niemietz is both comfortably precocious and convincingly vulnerable as little Helen, though two other youthful actors, Nicolas King and Emily Graham-Handley, respectively cast as her wily buddy and half-sister, show an unfortunate propensity for mugging. Luckily, Donna Lynne Champlin, the feisty ingenue who plays Helen as a college student and budding actress, manages to capture the earthier pluck that helped make Burnett a star in the first place.
That unforced and ultimately humble sass makes Hollywood Arms, despite its shortcomings, an embracing experience.
It's a showbiz truism that the roots of comic genius can be found in pain, and "Hollywood Arms" offers a grimly persuasive case study. Based on a memoir by Carol Burnett, the play depicts her desperate early years on the fringes of Hollywood, where she was raised by her loving termagant of a grandmother while her mother and father separately sank into alcoholism.
Sadly, this potentially poignant story, of a talented girl struggling free from the cycle of despair that consumed most of her family, has not been very skillfully dramatized. Directed with surprising stiffness by Harold Prince, it lurches and sags through an episodic 2½ hours of stage time without cohering into a sufficiently moving or consistently funny evening of theater. Perhaps the authors, Burnett and her daughter Carrie Hamilton (who died in January, shortly before the play opened at the Goodman Theater), were simply too close to the material -- even if the Burnett figure's name has been changed to Helen Melton. Whatever the cause, "Hollywood Arms" is a disappointingly awkward and lugubrious play, and even the curiosity of Burnett's fans may not give it a very long life on Broadway.
The play opens with a brief prologue that finds little Helen (Sara Niemietz) and her grandmother, called Nanny (Linda Lavin), stewing in Texas, where Helen's mother, Louise (Michele Pawk), has left them while she tries to establish herself as a Hollywood correspondent. Nanny's determined not to be left behind, so she and Helen soon pack up and land at the Hollywood Arms, where they share a one-room apartment down the hall from Louise's.
Here the family struggles to keep food on the table. Nanny devotes much of her energy to nagging Louise for not snagging the right man, the steady Bill (Patrick Clear), and taking up with the wrong one, a two-bit actor who happens to be married. Helen's father, Jody, is in and out of rehab (and, unfortunately for the fine Frank Wood, mostly out of the play). The young Helen is left to find her own way in life, eventually falling under the spell of showbiz, like her mother, but -- unlike Louise -- proving Nanny's sour predictions of failure wrong. (Donna Lynne Champlin takes over from Niemietz in act two as the older Helen.)
Lavin, a skilled hand at the fine art of kvetching, digs into the role of Nanny with her customary professionalism, earning some big laughs for a scene in which Nanny feigns a desperate illness to ward off punishment for running a bookmaking operation -- one of many failed schemes Louise and the family cook up to get by. But the role consists primarily of scolding, insulting and complaining; the character is utterly lacking in warmth and complexity.
Pawk is a fine actress with the right period look, and her performance is initially touching, as Louise attempts to re-establish a connection to her daughter while fending off the cruel slights of her mother and holding on to her dog-eared dream of making a living as a celebrity journalist. But the actress is ill-served by the play's sudden dramaturgical jolts. In one scene, Helen helps a chipper Louise prepare for a night out with her lover Nick; a scene later, Nick's apparently hightailed it out of her life, and the pregnant Louise has instantly turned into the bitter, shiftless alcoholic she will remain for the rest of the play. Throughout the evening, scenes feel oddly truncated or strangely shaped, even pointless; the drama never gains any emotional traction, despite its increasing pathos.
The miscast Champlin is perhaps the most unhappily used. Obviously, Carol Burnett is a one-of-a-kind talent, and it might not be wise -- if it were even possible -- to cast an actress with qualities that recall Burnett's. But Champlin displays precious little of the glowing comic charisma we need to see in Helen. In the second act, Helen discovers her natural talent when she's ordered onstage by the manager of the movie theater where she's working as an usher. Vamping while the projector is fixed, Helen acts out the story of the movie, to the delight of the audience. As Champlin slogs through this supposedly bravura showpiece, blatantly failing to deliver it with the dazzling panache it requires, your heart goes out to her. (It may be the most poignant moment in the show, for all the wrong reasons.)
Also looking forlorn is Walt Spangler's sepia-toned set, which seems stranded on the Cort stage, emphasizing the artifice of a fundamentally naturalistic play. Distracting, too, is Prince's sometimes awkward staging, which requires characters to march across the front of the stage directly in front of the apartment set to knock on the door.
Indeed, neither the show's creators nor its performers are ideally showcased here. At times the characters in "Hollywood Arms" recall more vividly realized -- and funnier -- figures from Burnett's TV days. It's clear that Burnett used memories of the fractious relationship between her mother and her grandmother in creating the characters of Eunice and Mama. There was always something painfully close to the bone in Burnett's performance as Eunice: Playing that chronically disappointed woman with a harpy of a mother, Burnett was utterly pitiful and utterly hilarious at the same time -- you didn't know whether to laugh or cry. At "Hollywood Arms," that particular dilemma never presents itself.