Monday, October 6, 2014

'Goodnight Marilyn: A Love Letter' Gives the Tragic Star a Much Needed Requiem

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” 
-Robin Williams as Lance Clayton in “World’s Greatest Dad."

I was thinking about this quote a lot while watching the Los Angeles production of “GoodbyeMarilyn: A Love Letter” at the Working Stage Theater. This play focuses on Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous movie stars on the planet and, as we quickly come to see, one of its loneliest individuals. As beloved as Marilyn was while she was alive, she seemed so sad and isolated from the rest of the human race. She strived for love and affection in many ways but constantly found it denied to her, and eventually she turned to alcohol and drugs to kill the pain that had afflicted her since childhood. Like many celebrities Marilyn looked like she could have anything and everything she ever wanted, but that was never truly the case.

“Goodbye Marilyn” takes place on the last night of the movie star’s life as she sits on her bed waiting for the phone to ring while popping pills and washing them down with vodka. Marilyn has no one to talk to but herself, and she bemoans all the loss opportunities and the things she could never have. But it turns out she’s not completely alone as her two ex-husbands, playwright Arthur Miller and baseball great Joe DiMaggio, come to her in a vision and comfort as her life is cut far too short.

Marilyn’s death remains one of Hollywood’s greatest mysteries. It was ruled a suicide, but theories still abound that she was actually murdered. “Goodbye Marilyn,” however, is not concerned with solving that mystery in the slightest. Instead, the play’s writer and director Michael Phillips is far more interested in stripping away the iconic image we all have of Marilyn and looking at her as a human being. This is something I would love to see people do with other celebrities on a regular basis as we tend to see them as superhuman which is fun but does them no real favors.

Playing Marilyn Monroe is actress Melanie Cruz. Does she look and sound like Marilyn? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that she fully inhabits Marilyn and gives a truly wonderful performance as she captures the famous actress at her most vulnerable and wanting. Cruz doesn’t make Marilyn completely likable (many said that the “Some Like It Hot” star was difficult to work with), but she does make the iconic actress very empathetic as she bemoans the unconditional love she was always searching for but never fully received. She never stoops to giving us a mere Marilyn Monroe impersonation (and lord knows we have way too many Marilyn impersonators out there), and her performance is all the more powerful because of that.

Darrell Philip plays Arthur Miller and gives the famous playwright a playful sense of humor as he proves to be the most sympathetic to his ex-wife’s needs in her final moments. He also proves to be a good foil for Cruz as they play off of each other with some very clever and funny dialogue. The moments where they talk about why playwrights are the last at the bar to get a drink and why “The Crucible” led to the breakup of their marriage are highlights.

Adam Slemon portrays DiMaggio and shows the famous ball player as still being madly in love with Marilyn even when it’s clear that he didn’t always have her best interests at heart. He is terrific in displaying the jealousy that eats away at him to where you understood why he and Marilyn could never stay together. Also, Slemon has a scene where he gets to portray “Some Like It Hot” director Billy Wilder, and he’s a real hoot as he loses all self-control in the process of trying to get a performance out of Marilyn.

Miller does wonderful work in creating an intimate atmosphere between these three characters and he makes us feel like we are a part of a solemn going away party. The idea for this play came to him during a conversation he had with his mom before she passed away, and she told him how her father and her husband came to visit and comfort her in a vision. Indeed, I imagine he hoped Marilyn had that same comfort before she passed away at far too young an age.

My only real complaint against “Goodbye Marilyn” is that the play’s ending feels a little too abrupt and doesn’t quite have the strong emotional impact I was expecting it to. I guess maybe I was hoping to spend a little more time with these three characters before Marilyn breathed her last breath, and I wanted to fully feel the tragedy of her loss. The actress was only 36 years old when she died, and while she lives on in our memories we are still reminded that all the money and fame in the world couldn’t give her the love she was constantly searching for.

Still, any problems I had with “Goodbye Marilyn” were really minor and watching it onstage proved to be a deeply immersive experience. We tend to put celebrities on a pedestal too high for their own good, and it gets to where we no longer see them as human. That’s a very dangerous thing to do to anyone, and Marilyn proved to be one of stardom’s biggest victims as a result. Miller isn’t out to give us any answers regarding her premature death, and I’m not sure anyone can at this point. What he wants is for us to treat her with some dignity even as we see her in her most helpless state, and it should go without saying that the star deserved to receive the unconditional love of others.

But the main reason to see “Goodbye Marilyn” is for Melanie Cruz who doesn’t take the easy way out and just impersonate the Marilyn Monroe we all know and love from the movies. Cruz inhabits the starlet with a great deal of complexity, and she more than rises to the challenge of playing such an infinitely famous person. She succeeds in bringing Marilyn back to life for a short time, and it’s a gift in getting to know the actress in this way.

Goodbye Marilyn: A Love Letter” is playing at the Working Stage Theater in Los Angeles which is at the corner of Gardner Street and Sunset Boulevard. It is playing through October 12th after which Miller will be taking it on the road to over states around the country. Please be sure to check it out before it is gone.