Hollywood Arms–growing up in L.A

July 1, 1993

Hollywood Arms–growing up in L.A

By Edith McCauley

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

A Hollywood heroine shares her personal story in a production now running at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Based on Carol Burnett’s memoir, One More Time, Hollywood Arms tells the story of a dysfunctional family and the survival strategies children create. As so often happens when parents become victims of their addictions, a grandmother serves as the surrogate parent. Helen, played by Sara Niemietz as a child, and Donna Champlin as a young adult, has been abandoned by parents who dream of success in LALA land. Michele Pawk is Louise, the glamorous mother convinced she will become the latest Hollywood interviewer meeting stars by the dozens. Jody, played by Frank Wood, an alcoholic suffering from tuberculosis, is the well-meaning ineffective husband and father.

The strongest character in the show, Nanny, played by Linda Lavin, literally saves the production with her delivery of witty lines that define an aging woman sometimes overwhelmed by responsibility. Shopping the sales at Penney’s, seeing the latest romantic movies and Bingo give her life the distractions needed when coping with the burden of raising another family with few resources.

Nearly everyone involved with the production are products of the television industry. Linda Lavin won the Emmy, the People’s Choice and the Golden Globe awards for her long-running role in the TV sitcom Alice. Carol Burnett is a legend. Beginning as a young woman in New York City, The Ed Sullivan Show introduced her to the world of television, but it was The Carol Burnett Show, running from 1967 to 1979 that endeared her to audiences and garnered 23 Emmy awards. Regulars Harvey Korman and Tim Conway contributed unforgettable comedic moments, and with Burnett set the standard for comedy.

Working with Director Hal Prince, Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, wrote the play in five months, revisiting the apartment where she and Nanny had lived in the ’40s and ’50s. The building still existed, and that became the model for the stage set, an efficiency unit with a Murphy bed and closet kitchen. The Art Deco building with a rooftop that became a playground for the children and the lighted sign in the Hollywood hills is Los Angeles as the rest of the world knows it.

There are flaws in the production. Television sitcoms running 30 minutes consist of scenes lasting three to four months. That seemed to be the model for Hollywood Arms. The first act of an hour and a half encompassed uncountable scenes, and a strange rolling screen moved across the stage periodically for no apparent reason. The set itself came directly from a sound stage and did little to enhance the play. The cast, all qualified actors playing edgy roles, sometimes went over the top, especially the children. If the production goes to New York, it will need work.

The death of Carrie Hamilton in January cast a shadow over the opening. Burnett’s support group were there in force. Florence Henderson voiced loving support for an old friend, and Tim Conway said Harvey Korman is unable to travel. Conway, still the wit, said, “I spend my time in the valley peeling eggs.”

Hollywood Arms runs through Saturday, June 1, 2002. The box office number is 312-443-3800.

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