My Pal Bette
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 20, 2009
My Pal Bette, a new play by John Ryan that has arrived in New York City just in time for Gay Pride, has an unbeatable concept. Tommy Klein, an awkward, unpopular, pre-teen living with his possessive mother, acquires a guardian "diva" to help him grow up—and that diva is none other than Bette Davis. Bette instructs Tommy in the finer points of assertiveness and holding one's own—who would know better than she how to face down a schoolyard bully with only a cigarette for a weapon? And, as Tommy matures, she helps him understand and come to terms with the realization that he's gay, even playing Cupid to help him overcome shyness with a boy he wants to get to know better.
It is a fabulous conceit, with plenty of possibilities. (It feels like it could be the basis for a sitcom, doesn't it?) Ryan wisely does not overplay his hand here, though, keeping My Pal Bette to the very manageable length of one hour. The show is at its best in the interplay between Davis and the teenage Tommy, played convincingly and likably by the playwright himself. The earlier scenes are a bit spottier: Ryan does a fine job establishing Bette in movie star heaven, recruited by a hunky angel (played by the buff, game Reece Scelfo) to earn her "diva wings" by helping Tommy find self-actualization; but the vignettes that introduce young Tommy to us make him out to be more of a weird little nerd than a budding gay boy, which in this context feels jarring. (I liked, though, that these opening vignettes are intermixed with footage of La Davis in All About Eve and other classic roles/poses.)
The bitchy, witty, allusion-laded repartee is generally pretty clever; some of the funniest material in My Pal Bette come in sight gags. I don't want to give too much away, but know that this play makes plenty of disparaging references to Joan Crawford and includes set pieces devoted to fellow diva Ethel Merman and another who I won't name (but she is portrayed dead-on by Sivan Hadari, who also plays Tommy's loving but dysfunctional mother). Michael Ell is the very appealing young actor who plays young Tommy, and the cast also includes, in multiple roles, PJ Brennan, James Brent Isaacs, and Cindy Pearlman. In the star part of Miss Davis is Tammy Kopko, who sounds and moves enough like the real thing to convince us that she is indeed this particular guardian diva.
Kenny Howard's direction serves the play neatly, on a modest set designed by Keith Rogers and Kris Smith that bespeaks the show's fringe theater origins. The video work by Adam Rohrmann and Gerard Kouwhenhoven is expert. And the pre-show music, a mix of '40s pop and a campy song about the famous movie that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford made together (I can't find out who recorded it; it's very funny), sets the tone for the show perfectly.