The show takes place in a fictitious prop room at Desilu Studios, densely populated with such classic I Love Lucy set pieces as the wine vat, the candy factory's conveyer belt and a few bottles of Vitameatavegamin. Within Gary Wichansky's set, remarkably done in the gray hues of a black-and-white TV show, Hooser uses the props clumsily as metaphors for troublesome incidents in Ball's life. As Ball pretends to wrap candy coming down the conveyer belt, she refers to how the hectic pace of her career has interfered with her marriage. When she supposedly gets an urn stuck on her head, she lashes out at Desi for his infidelities. The machinations feel mostly like attempts to skirt copyright infringements.
The core of a one-woman show about someone so famous should be occupied by more than a vague approximation of the celebrity. Missy Koonce becomes merely Ball's silhouette, more wig than wag. She's allowed to coast on her personality rather than dig into her skills as a thespian.
Koonce's task is to bring Ball to life on the night she plays Lucy Ricardo for the last time and serves husband Desi Arnaz with divorce papers. The chief problem is the voice. Koonce mentions Ball's New England stock but does nothing to stifle her own distinct Southern drawl. When Koonce mimics Arnaz, she sounds like Gilda Radner's Roseanne Rosannadanna; the vocal inflections of Vivian Vance and William Frawley aren't there, either. If it's impossible to believe that's really Lucille Ball on stage -- or even a well-drawn impersonation -- the point of the project evaporates.
And though it's undoubtedly well-researched, Hooser's script is bloated with picayune details. Why, for example, do we hear about how Ball's brother accidentally paralyzed a neighbor child? Or about Ball's game of mutual fondling with a male playmate called "milk the cow"? Hooser races through Ball's film career (she worked with some amazing directors) in less time than he devotes to an audition for a part -- Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind -- that she didn't get. Ball's interesting tussle with Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee is conveyed in a few rushed minutes.
When Hooser aims for the bigger picture, the play disintegrates into cliches. "We built it together, but it tore us apart," Ball says of Desilu Studios' impact on her marriage. Near the end, she says, "Life is messier than a sitcom." That sentiment, of course, could be attributed to everyone from dead child stars such as Dana Plato to Matthew Perry. Ball can claim it as well, but it doesn't set her apart; it inadvertently lumps her into a document of emotional wreckage like Hollywood Babylon.
If codirectors Jeff Church and Phil Fiorini have decided this is a tribute to an image that doesn't require the actor to play Lucille Ball, they've succeeded. "Here's Lucy," they seem to say, but the result is more like Where's Waldo? In almost two hours, Lucille Ball sneaks out from behind Missy Koonce in tiny intervals -- a grimace here, a gesture there. I love Lucy, but Loving Lucy? Not so much.