By Aroha Awarau; Directed by Katie Wolfe
Presented by I’d Like To Thank Productions | Basement Theatre, Auckland | May 20-31
To anybody who knows me, it’s no secret that I’m obsessed with the Oscars. I could tell you what won Best Picture in any given year, and more importantly, who won Best Actress. In most cases, I would’ve seen the winner. I love the Oscars like sports fans love rugby: with fiery, somewhat inexplicable devotion, which leads to an almost savant-like ability to fire off statistics and memories in a way that is only useful at trivia nights.
In short: I know the Oscars, inside and out. It’s why the premise of Luncheon immediately captures me and then intrigues me. A play about a group of nominated actresses getting together a few days before the ceremony is a play that I want to see. At the very least, it promises the opportunity to see some local actors put their spin on some famous actresses from decades past, offers potential for commentary on the role of the Academy Awards in Hollywood as a whole, and on a personal level, what an Academy Award means to an actress. It seems like a surefire win for a play.
It’s the specific focus of Luncheon that intrigues me. It focuses on the Best Supporting Actress nominees for 1957, a slate of actors that includes Elsa Lancaster, Miyoshi Umeki, Hope Lange, Diane Varsi, and Carolyn Jones. I’m not being unkind when I say that none of these are household names, and none of the films they are nominated for (Witness for the Prosecution, Sayonara, Peyton Place, and The Bachelor Party) have particularly stood the test of time (Peyton Place aside amongst Lana Turner enthusiasts). The one thing that makes this slate of nominees interesting is the eventual winner, Miyoshi Umeki, who remains the only Asian performer to win an Oscar, and one of an embarrassingly small number to be nominated.
It’s an obscure year to base a play on, and this has its strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, it allows both writer and cast to build their own interpretations of this group of women and this situation in a way that more notable years with more well-known actresses would hamper them. However, on the other hand, it means that the audience is left playing catch-up. Who are these people and more crucially, why do we care?
Writer Aroha Awarau, in his debut play, answers the first question by telling us. The first half of the play is very stop-start as we are introduced to each one of the characters, including Carolyn Jones’s husband Aaron Spelling. Awarau shows his research as characters recite anecdotes about themselves, their performances in the movies, their history in the industry, and ultimately, things you would get by reading a Wikipedia article.
While this effectively introduces us to each character, on a surface level, it often feels like the writer showing us his work rather than showing us how these characters would organically interact in this situation. When Carolyn Jones repeats the exact length of her performance in The Bachelor Party—five minutes and twenty seven seconds—it feels less like what this actress would say in this situation, and more like what someone who has bookmarked many pages in Inside Oscar would say, and with glee. A more egregious moment is when Elsa Lanchester refers to a past miscarriage she had, apparently within minutes of meeting Carolyn Jones for the first time.
This introduces another pitfall of the script, and one that drags it down throughout, which is that none of these characters feel believable in this context. It never felt like we were watching five actresses with something in common talking with each other; it felt like we were watching characters with some basis in real life discussing chapters from their life and talking like what people assume glamourous actresses in Hollywood talk like. At best, this is misleading, but at worst it is downright disrespectful of the subjects in the play. The Hope Lange that the script presents us with is a catty, ambitious woman who values the Oscar above all else in her career and is frankly a racist, but a quick Google search of Hope Lange shows that this is not the case; she gave a lot of her money to a refugee project. While the former may make for easy conflict, it is a dishonour to the memory of the actual woman to present her in this way.
It is also unfortunate that the conflict the script drums out is exactly what you expect from the premise, and not in a good way. Rather than engaging in genuine conflict or at least intelligent discussion, the actresses instead are wrapped up discussions about past successes and taking each other down. The play meanders down this path for much of its duration, before a tonally jarring slapstick moment followed quickly by a moment of offscreen drama that centres the characters in a way that makes very little sense and is not dramatically satisfying, least of all because it doesn’t resolve any conflict. When the historically mandated ending comes, it seems less because of any structural intent and more because that’s what actually happened.
The shapelessness of the play does not give the cast a strong foundation, but they fare well despite this. The main drawcard is Jennifer Ward Lealand’s Elsa Lanchester, and she doesn’t disappoint. She delivers barbs with precision, is refreshingly loose and fun in a way I haven’t seen in some time, and yet still manages to give her monologues a gravity that isn’t entirely earned by the script. Her impression of Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein scream is delightful, and a clear highlight of the production.
Another highlight is Lauren Gibson as Hope Lange, despite the aforementioned quibbles. Gibson steps into her own as the play’s unlikely antagonist and even if her ice blonde hair doesn’t draw the eye, her poised but incredible natural presence does. A reversal towards the end of the play lets her flex her comic chops, and watching something dawn on her is a truly special moment.
Alex Jordan as Diane Varsi and Tomoko Taouma as Miyoshi Umeki get less to do, with Jordan’s Varsi necessarily blending into the background amongst more vibrant characters and Taouma’s Umeki coming in at around the halfway point. Jordan has a few choice comic moments, and Taouma nails what is likely intended to be the play’s emotional climax with dignity. Taouma can be a little bit hard to hear at times, especially all the way across a particularly wide space.
As the play’s de facto protagonist, Hannah Banks as Carolyn Jones is an interesting misfire. Whether through interpretation or misdirection, Banks’s Jones is a combination of awkward posturing and movements. While occasionally this works in sync with the own character’s discomfort with being a hostess, at other times it is peculiar to watch and doesn’t seem to be in line with Carolyn Jones as a real human being, or Carolyn Jones as the play interprets her. As her husband Aaron Spelling, Bede Skinner is serviceable, but is relegated too much to exposition to truly build a character.
The design aspects of the play are expensive looking, but often seem to jar with the era of the play. I’ll be the first to put my hand up as not being an expert in the architecture of Hollywood homes in the late ’50s, but John Verryt’s set seems more modern than that, and it often felt like sitting in a home in Remuera rather than sitting in the living room of a famous actress in the ’50s. Rose Jackson’s costumes range from the sublime (Hope Lange’s dress) to the appropriately old dame (Elsa Lanchester’s get-up), to the bizarre and modern (Diane Varsi’s jumper and headband, which seem more at home on New Girl than on these characters). On the other hand, Rachel Marlow’s design effectively makes use of practicals to give us the eerie feeling that we’re watching these actresses on a set, a theatrical flourish that is unfortunately not picked up anywhere else in the play.
Which leads me to the second question: why do we care? After seeing and thoroughly considering this play, I can’t answer that question. I should be in this play’s target audience—I actually know who these actresses are and I know all the films—but I’m not. Luncheon never strongly articulates a theme to feel strongly about, though it ever so slightly leans towards a statement about the treatment of minorities in Hollywood towards the end, and I can’t help but put this up to the subject matter. A post-show skim through the 1957 Oscars in my own well-used copy of Inside Oscar reveals that this year isn’t remarkable in any way. Even though Miyoshi Umeki was the first Asian actress to win an acting Oscar, it didn’t shake the industry to the core or alter it in any shape or form.
Sadly, the answer to the question of why do we care is that we don’t. Luncheon is a peculiar trifle, and a fascinating case study, but very hard to recommend unless you’re especially keen to see Jennifer Ward Lealand play Elsa Lanchester. And while I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to see that, I can’t promise that you’ll get much else out of it.