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Watch it Bub: Charlotte Booker as The Lady With All the Answers.

Photo: Lanny Nagler

Confidential to America

By Kathryn Geurin

The Lady With All the Answers

By David Rambo, directed by Steve Campo

Capital Repertory Theatre, through May 9

Eppie Lederer—better known by her pen name, Ann Landers—is a fascinating and charismatic woman. Her story is packed with dramatic fodder, a biographer’s dream come true. A virtuous girl from Sioux City, Iowa wins a contest to replace the Chicago Sun Times’ deceased advice columnist and becomes a voice of wisdom, reason and sass for millions of readers, a last bastion of compassion for lost souls. She warms her way onto the fridges of everyday Americans, and into the ears of presidents and Supreme Court justices. She uses her editorial soapbox to demand progressive action on issues ranging from civil rights to cancer research, tours Red China and military hospitals in Vietnam. She maintains a decades-long rivalry with her twin sister and professional competitor “Dear Abby.” She falls in love with her husband while shopping for a wedding veil, preparing to marry another man. And thirty-seven years later, she admits an inconceivable failure to 60 million readers: Her perfect marriage is over.

Unfortunately, David Rambo’s biographic one-woman play about the celebrity columnist plays more like a dramatized Wikipedia entry than an actual drama. Festooned with predictable one-liners, and devoid of drama or sincerity, it would make for an entertaining stop at a living museum—an Ann Landers impersonator in bouffant and blazer giving an engaging, in-character blitz of facts and quips—but it has no arc or heart. The current production at Capital Repertory Theatre, brought in from TheaterWorks in Hartford and directed by TheaterWorks founder Steve Campo, is a fitting treatment: charming, but amounting to little more than a chatty string of interesting information about an interesting woman.

The Lady With All the Answers finds Lederer in her swank Chicago apartment in June 1975, struggling to craft the now-famous column announcing her divorce. The script wants to be an intimate portrait of a very public figure, illuminated in a deeply personal moment of reflection. But it fails in its basic conceit. Rambo sets his play in this most private and vulnerable moment, but makes it a public event.

He has Lederer address the audience directly throughout, reading letters, making snappy asides during significant phone calls, and (much to this critic’s dismay) holding repeated “reader polls,” requesting that audience members raise a hand to vote on everything from the proper hanging of toilet paper to the longevity of their marriage. He has manufactured an entirely false portrait of a woman at the very instant that she achieves an enduring pinnacle of truth.

Her elegant apartment is nicely executed by set designer Adrian W. Jones, but not even a pen is out of place in her meticulous sitting room/office. There is nothing to indicate the slightest crack in her chipper public persona, even at this shattering juncture in her life. The same holds true for Kenneth Mooney’s costuming. In this moment, Lederer is putting her career on the line and reflecting on the demise of a 37-years-long love. It’s impossible to find honesty in a portrayal that depicts her decked out in pumps and dress slacks, a purple blazer cinched at her waist—especially as she claims she does her best work in a bubblebath. Her strength would be more potent if there was any hint of her unraveling.

Charlotte Booker presents a gregarious and energetic portrait of the middle-aged spitfire. She is fun to watch, successfully engages the audience, and garners plenty of chuckles. Her mannerisms are well practiced, but she does little to fill the spaces in Rambo’s script with heart. She repeatedly mimes the savoring of chocolate from a beribboned box, but never leaves time for it to melt on the tongue. When she deliberately tugs a clip-on earring off each time she answers the phone, the gesture is familiar, but the conversations that follow feel empty. She fails to create the sense that anyone is actually on the other line. And when, in a final burst of clarity, she sits at her typewriter and hammers out the emotional end of her column, piano strains swelling from the record player upstage, there is no connection between her keystrokes and the words she eventually reads from the page.

Lederer’s story oozes personality, humor and drama. But in the end, the queen of quips won her readers through unfaltering sincerity and generosity of heart. One can’t help thinking that the lady with all the answers would be disappointed in this superficial homage.


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