It’s really interesting to think that thousands of more people are going to see Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum than will make it to Jermyn Street to see a far more realistic version of the same story. Although I Loved Lucy is sold as “what it was like to be with Lucy,” it’s really a more universal story of fame, adoration, loneliness, and dependency.
Set in (mostly) the late 70s and 80s, I Loved Lucy is the story of … well, in the real world it’s the story of a gay writer, Lee Tannen (Stefan Menaul), who becomes close friends with Lucille Ball (Sandra Dickinson) at the end of her life, then goes on to write a play about it that is called I Loved Lucy. Rather than being “based on real life events,” it is supposed to be biographical and truly real, meaning that if you’re a fan of Lucille Ball this is the theatrical experience you’ve been waiting for your entire life. The show is crammed full of detail – of clothing, friendships, gossip, and day to day minutiae – that makes it fantastic as a window into the life of a celebrity.
But … what if you don’t want to see a show about an actress who died almost thirty years ago? What if you’re not familiar with her work? What if … you didn’t love Lucille Ball? (And, gasp, what if this “warts and all” portrayal isn’t entirely true? Most biographies skip some stuff as too personal – sometimes to flatter the writer, sometimes to flatter the subject.) So let’s step back from this show as being very specifically about one actress and look at it as a story. I Loved Lucy, is, in an odd way, an inside-out Sunset Boulevard, taking a few of its ingredients – a star struck younger man, a fading actress with a strong personality – and then flipping them like a pancake, adding a strong dose of Hollywood Babylon (the celebrity dish is pretty yummy) but then making the story of loneliness, dependency and the difficulties of figuring out how to handle the inevitability of aging and death. With a gay man as the lead and a compelling actress standing in the role of a woman who despairs of never again getting to act. It’s a realistic and very human story that transcends its specificity (backgammon games, lynx fur coats) to hit universal notes of what it’s like to be a strong woman, how it felt to be a cog in an industry, and how to be close to someone at the end of their life.
I found myself also thinking of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where nearly a chapter is devoted to the death of the narrator’s grandmother – a woman I had spent hundreds of pages getting to know. The author created a relationship for me, and then he took it away, and watching it happen hurt. Even though we all know death is going to come, it’s still painful, but, in the case of this play as in the case of Proust, going along with these old people on that journey is a wonderful thing – a little more wonderful in that this bit of writing has a good lesson in how to be a friend to someone late in life. I loved it for that. And with such fine performances – Sandra Dickinson has a far more nuanced character to play than Glenn Close does, and I can hardly think of a richer role for an older actress – well, this is an example of jewelbox London theater at its best.
(This review is for the opening night performance of the second run of I Loved Lucy, which took place on Friday, April 8, 2016. It continues through April 23rd.)