Bette Davis Ain't For Sissies
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
August 13, 2011
Playing Bette Davis ain’t for sissies, but writer/performer Jessica Sherr makes a brave attempt in her thoughtful, if ultimately undramatic, one-person show. Sherr’s got the red hair, the fabulous vintage wardrobe, the clipped tones, and the steely poise to approximate Bette on stage, but the star’s fire and wry humor mostly elude her.
Make no mistake, Sherr is a skilled actor. As Bette, she glides elegantly between triumph and despair, reminiscing about her stormy career on the fateful Oscar night of 1940—the night rival Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for Gone With the Wind. The victory particularly stings for Bette as the plum role of Scarlett O'Hara was originally hers, until her headstrong behavior made the studio renege on its promise.
The problem is the script. While it avoids the pratfall of simply telling Davis’s story chronologically, it nevertheless fails to mine any real dramatic conflict. Yes, Bette is distraught at having lost Scarlett and the Oscar, but the conceit seems little more than an excuse to allow her to meditate on her career for 55 minutes, not an opportunity for character development. Bette contemplates her highs and lows, yet her character feels strangely inert. (It also doesn’t help that by 1940, Bette’s career had several decades more to go…and a retrospective up to this point feels a bit premature.) The show’s turning point—in which she contemplates whether or not to return to the Oscar ceremony she brusquely left—feels unearned. And weirdly, for a show with such a punchy title, there are only intermittent flashes of Bette’s infamous dark humor.
Still, Sherr is a compelling presence. She gives a heartfelt, committed performance under Theresa Gambacorta’s efficient, if sometimes oddly nuanced, direction. (An early blackout to allow Sherr to change costumes feels weirdly out of place, for example, when other scene transitions take place in full light.) Bette Davis fans might appreciate this careful homage to their idol, though those looking for campy fun would best look elsewhere.