Boulevard of Broken Dreams
With "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," Boston playwright Lesley Anne Moreau puts a fun spin on "No Exit," Jean-Paul Sartre’s austere tale of a claustrophobic after life, by bringing film celebs who died young together in a locked room. Happy Medium Theatre Company production of Moreau’s play is a world premiere.
"Hell is other people," Sartre’s famous line from his existential classic written during the Nazi occupancy of Paris, has resonance for these characters as well. The philosophical insight touches on the sorrows of their lives on Earth, but with a difference. These Hollywood stars individually have an unbroken spirit despite their various woes. So they bring a sense of humor, a human openness, and a zest for living to the weird situation that gives Moreau’s two-act play its energy and appeal.
It’s a kick to hear from James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Sal Mineo, Heather O’Rourke, and River Phoenix giving their take on their own lives, as well as seeing how they get on together. Moreau’s nicely paced direction gives the actors ample time to indulge the audience’s interest in the nuances of these fabled people, (Moreau also did the smartly apt costuming, such as having Monroe wear the white dress from the famous subway grate scene from "The Seven Year Itch").
The entertaining production of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," with its moments of blithe interplay and insightful performances, continues its two-week run through Aug. 20 at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.
The play’s title refers to a cabaret number from the 1934 movie "Moulin Rouge," in which glamour queen Constance Bennett sings hauntingly of "madness in the guise of gladness." It is likely more familiar to today’s audiences from the version that the late, troubled singer Amy Winehouse covered effectively. That she also died young adds to the reasons why her version of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (or better yet, in my opinion, Bennett’s) would have been more effective as a prelude to the play than Green Day’s jarring rendition.
"Boulevard of Broken Dreams," which was also the title of a James Dean bio, for the purpose of the play refers to Sunset Boulevard, the street in L.A. that has been a center for entertainment as well as the city’s red light district. Moreau says that she was inspired by hyper realistic contemporary artist Gottfried Heinwein’s watercolor "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," a reinterpretation of Edward Hopper’s subtly bleak painting of people sitting in a diner late at night "Nighthawks."
The characters enter their afterlife experience chronologically. A sign posted on the wall in the rather sparsely decorated room informs them that this locked door space will remain home to them until they can determine what the five of them have in common.
James Dean (1931-1955), in a well-done, mimetic performance from Nick Miller, is the first to enter. A speed demon of a driver, he died in a car accident. Edgy, high octane, and emotional, Dean, after more than seven years of being alone, more than welcomes the company of Marilyn Monroe, who died at age 36 in 1962, perhaps from a drug overdose, perhaps from other circumstances.
As the famed sexpot, Kiki Samko is emotionally fragile yet deliciously whimsical. Over the passage of time, she’s the glue that keeps these big egos from destroying the comradery that will serve to get them out of there; although Sal Mineo, stabbed to death outside his apartment in 1976, has an endearing amiability as well.
Of course, Mineo, well portrayed by Mikey DiLoreto, is thrilled to be reunited with Dean as Mineo played opposite him in "Rebel Without A Cause" in a role Mineo claims as the first openly gay character in a Hollywood movie. Dean is equally happy to see Sal, but the hugs go no further than friendship to Mineo’s regret.
The trio greet little Heather O’Rourke of Stephen Spielberg’s "Poltergeist" fame with open dismay as the child star had even less time to enjoy her life than they, having died in 1988 at age 12 on the operating table from complications from Crohn’s disease that had gone undiagnosed. Clutching her Dumbo stuffed animal and carrying a gold fishbowl, adult actor Kendall Aiguier aptly portrays the sensitive little girl.
River Phoenix isn’t taking death in stride. He is tossed into the room kicking and screaming, and then unsuccessfully tries to ram the door down with all his strength to no avail of course. Michael Underhill brings a mesmerizing kinetic intensity to his portrayal of this hipster star, who died to his surprise on Halloween 1993 from an overdose of coke and heroin.
Playwright Moreau’s thoughtful excursion into the afterlife of these Hollywood celebrities treats them with a respect they likely wouldn’t get from today’s pushy media yet allows a bit of analysis too that is interesting.
Remaining performances of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" are August 18, 19, and 20 at 8 pm with a matinee August 20 at 3 pm at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., in Boston, a few blocks south of the B.U. bridge. For more info go to the company’s website. Tickets are available at the box office or by going to www.ovationtix.com.