Open to any page, and you see why. Take this seduction:
"Jen, no one should have boobs like that."
... She smiled. "They're yours, Tony."
What's shocking today is that anyone could have found this shocking.
Godawfulness doesn't mean the book wasn't important, though. Susann bold-printed what few others dared say: that, in America, sex is the medium in which we exist; it soaks through and lubes up all that we say and do. Her book scored so big because it captured in spiky, hilarious dialogue the frustration and confusion of the American woman, newly liberated in sex and in the workplace. Now, she not only had to worry about all that Jane Austen find-a-man shit; she also had to find a career. Then she had to find fulfillment and teach that man to get her off, all without looking like a slut.
At Late Night Theatre, the cast members are too busy keeping their falsies in to worry about any of this. Nothing wrong with that, though, because this Valley of the Dolls has a kick that's been lacking in a couple of Late Night's other recent productions, which typically have been drag-dependent burlesques of campy films.
The book (and movie and play) tells the story of three young women finding and losing themselves in what my grandparents used to call show business. They all struggle with men and careers, which are too often bound together, as well as the age-old question of just how much a girl should put out. Then, for a big finish, they all take heaps of "dolls" (Susann's term for bennies, uppers and downers) and have evocative spasms.
More an addled appreciation than a spoof, this Valley kicks off Late Night's 10th-anniversary celebration, a season-long return to the hits of Late Night past. (Coming not soon enough are revivals of 9 to 5 and The Birds. ) The script, by company impresario Ron Megee, bolts amusingly through Susann's over-the-top plotting and is peppered with songs and a number of bizarrely inventive set-pieces. It also packs choice lines from the book and the movie. "Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!" and the immortal "Boobies, boobies, boobies!" are both given fire here by the grand Gary Campbell, who, in some kind of drag hat trick, plays Patty Duke playing Neely O'Hara, who is herself Susann's monstrous swipe at Judy Garland.
Just thinking about it, I need a pill.
Megee's clear affection for the material is a relief after Late Night's bitchier shows, such as Super Models In Space (central joke: models are hot but dumb) and Purple Rain (central joke: Prince is an asshole). This time, there is no easy central joke. Instead of making fun of all the pill-fueled freakouts, the cast relishes them, really acting, yowling and writhing and gobbling dolls like whales sucking down plankton. Campbell, especially, gives us a championship breakdown, running amok in a push-up bra and genuinely seeming to feel his Neely's pain. He never seems to be trying for laughs, which makes his performance somehow funnier.
Jon Cupit is good as Jennifer, the blond model with the breasts lionized above. Like Campbell, he fashions a character instead of a joke. He plays Jenniger as cold and aloof, just as Sharon Tate did; unlike Tate, he lounges around reading Helter Skelter. Director Megee, playing the wholesome Anne, glimmers beneath a succession of black wigs (the first of which might be a well-coifed camel's hump). And Chadwick Brooks and Cory James Dowman bravely playing men have moments of memorable physical comedy. Brooks' turn as Ted Casablanca, the requisite Very, Very Gay Man, is particularly fun, partly because his outlandishness is, for once, present in the source material rather than just tossed in by Late Night. Valley suits the troupe so well that swishing it up is unnecessary.
Megee's main addition is an inspiration. The show is narrated by of all things a pill-dispensing Dionne Warwick (Damron Russell Armstrong), who sings the film's forgettable theme and, later, just for hell of it, treats us to "Alfie" and "Walk on By." Armstrong, who is almost never offstage, spends much of the show rolling his eyes at the action, to great comic effect.
As always, Georgianna Londre's costumes are spectacular, this time a bevy of '60s dresses and underthings that would almost be enjoyable enough even if the rest of the show bit it. Cupit's set smartly incorporates these costumes: The wardrobe rack is center stage, swollen with spectacular frocks, and each actor, when exiting, pauses to select his next outfit. This creates a countdown effect, the rack emptying as the show goes on. By the climax, when Campbell's Neely shivers in a half-naked collapse, a single dress hangs at the rack's center. We know Neely will eventually wear it, but there's something poignant in seeing it hang there, something lonely yet hopeful. When she is at last helped into it, we're both happy for her and disappointed for us the show's almost over, so we'd better savor what's left.
These bursts of real feeling aren't new for Late Night, but they still surprise. I'm glad Megee takes Susann (kinda) seriously. Regardless of her hothouse style, her big themes the struggles of women in a man's world still apply today. In fact, it's all sadly contemporary: Today, women aren't just free to work but forced to. Today, Kansas virgins go down without condoms because Baby Jesus prefers abstinence pledges to sex ed. Today, boobs like that are available to anyone with 10 grand. Today, pills are easier to get than ever just claim fibromyalgia.
The good news: Today is Late Night's 10th anniversary. Keep 'em coming.