You say you want to be a movie star? Want to be famous? You just might think twice after seeing Topher Payne’s “The Only Light in Reno.”
Georgia Ensemble Theatre has become something of a second home for Payne. Three of his plays have run here. Like “Reno,” Payne’s “Swell Party” has debuted here.
As with “Swell Party,” Payne has an eye for juicy gossip taken from the tabloids and turning to his own devices. Indeed, “Party” and “Reno” even share a character, Libby Holman.
In “Reno,” Payne delves into the lives of three Hollywood legends, Marilyn Monroe (Rachel Sorsa), Elizabeth Taylor (Kate Donadio) and Montgomery Clift (Johnny Drago), who really did find themselves in a Reno hotel in 1960. Monroe and Clift were in Reno filming “The Misfits” and that certainly described their conduct as each tried to complete the movie and deal with their demons at the same time.
Due to a blackout in Reno, this trio of Hollywood interlopers thrust into the mundane world of Nevada probably did share time together in a hotel room where they did share the only light in Reno; certainly the only one working in the Mapes Hotel.
That of course is all we really know for sure about what transpired during the 105 minutes of the play. So what do we see? In Act 1, we see these icons, alternately spiteful, witty and self-absorbed. Just what you would expect of icons.
With them are former songstress and later heiress Libby (Shelly McCook) who was at home in Hollywood, Broadway or in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s living room. She had developed a friendship with Clift, and although she was linked to younger men as soon as they were old enough to be too young for her, Clift’s relationship appears platonic, not least because he was gay.
Paula Strasberg (Elizabeth A. Genge) is the wife of acting guru Lee Strasberg and was a career Broadway actor herself until she was blacklisted in the ’50s. Monroe lived with the Strasbergs for a while when she was attending the Actor’s Studio in New York.
The juicy parts almost always occur when a cast member is offstage and the other characters reveal what they or others thought of the missing one. And there are lots of them.
In 1960, we didn’t have a 24-hour news source dedicated to scandal and Hollywood bad boys and girls like we do today. Nor do we now have the movie studio system that could and did go to great lengths to protect their stars from their own excesses.
So they felt insulated from their public, whereas today’s celebrities are merely disdainful of them.
Payne is known for his meticulous research, and he reveals all, such as when Clift says, “I only take medication with vodka.”
It is hard to make a play about famous actors, because we so often know exactly how they talk and move. Thus, to create a sense of reality, there must be at least a hint of caricature. To that degree, Sorsa as Monroe has to be the most careful. Monroe could be said to be Marilyn’s most gifted caricaturist. But Sorsa walks the line well, especially when she as Monroe, does a turn as “Her.”
Donadio has a more difficult time in the first act because as Taylor, there are no bits of “shtick.” Because Taylor was a gifted actor and in so many varied roles, it is difficult. In the second act, she hauntingly captures Taylor’s accent, part English, part patrician Virginian that is uncanny.
And curiously – I say that because I don’t think it was conscious – Genge as Strasberg (again in the second act) sounds just like Thelma Ritter. If so, it is perfect casting.
McCook as Libby is simply indefatigable. Libby is always “on,” and so is McCook.
It is the second act when the masks begin to come off. They slowly reveal themselves as people and not the aristocracy of the Silver Screen. It is then that the characters become less than cameos and truly human with fears of failure, getting older and worst of all, losing their looks.
When Payne is done, he makes you want to go back and ask Marilyn, Liz and Monty, “Was it really worth it all?”