PARDON MY DUST
by Bob Curtright, Wichita Eagle correspondent
Playwright Annie Welsbacher’s “Pardon My Dust” is a two-person play but a decidedly one-woman show – rather, showcase – because it’s all based on the words and writings of noted tart-tongued author, wit and critic, Dorothy Parker.
Welsbacher cleverly weaves together excerpts from Parker’s poems, plays, essays, theater and book reviews as well as acerbic observations and delicious zingers shared by her famous friends and even more famous enemies to construct a view into Parker’s sophisticated but often dark world. Parker’s cynicism, colored by personal tragedies from suicide attempts to abortion, revolved around her never quite believing she was a good writer, despite her fame.
Parker was part of the famous Algonquin Round Table of writers who ruled New York in the early part of the 20th Century, but she felt overshadowed by such talents as George S. Kaufman, Ring Lardner, Alexander Woollcott and Robert Benchley. The bitter irony is that, of her famous circle, she is the only one in continuous print nearly a century later. She is the survivor and the exemplar.
And playwright Welsbacher’s purpose is to force Parker to confront her own talents and realize her worth as a person, to give her the happy ending she may never have had in real life. Welsbacher does that by ushering Parker into a way station with all of her baggage – including more than a few stuffed dogs representing pets throughout her life – at the moment of her death in 1967 at age 73. “What fresh hell is this?,” Parker (Liz Willis) trumpets upon arrival in what looks like a posh gentleman’s club with dark wood bar and sleek leather chairs.
(The beautiful set design by Dan Williams is particularly brilliant because it is wallpapered with newsprint overlayed with giant Hershfeld caricatures of Parker and the Algonquin circle.)
It’s isn’t hell, she is told by a guide named Janus (Keith Boyer), but it might as well be because she is terrified of being alone. At Janus’ prodding, she roots through her considerable baggage – literally – to recall and review the bits and pieces of her life. As she does, Janus transforms into half a dozen important figures in her past, from one of her husbands to snotty Woollcott (famous as the inspiration for “The Man Who Came to Dinner”) to her beloved Benchley, the love of her life but never (reportedly) her actual lover, to her dismay. Parker banters, argues, confronts, affronts and ultimately embraces Janus in his various guises so she can find peace with herself. The clever title refers to Parker’s ashes, which were relegated to a lawyer’s file cabinet for years before finally being laid to rest.
Veteran Wichita actress Willis, who approached Welsbacher to write this work for her, is a powerhouse as Parker, sometimes stalking the stage in triumph and sometimes shuffling around in doubt. Willis shows many emotional shades as she pushes beneath Parker’s strident, privileged, quippy surface to reveal the wounded romantic soul underneath.
Boyer, another prolific local actor, is a nimble, versatile presence as Janus who changes personalities (and voices) as easily as slipping on a pair of glasses, hat, smoking jacket or waiter’s apron. Boyer is a strong match for Willis and a generous co-star whose performance beautifully supports rather than competes with the heroine.
Directed by Wichita State’s longtime theater head Dick Welsbacher (the playwright’s father), the show – given its world premiere Wednesday – got off to a sluggish start but quickly picked up pace when Parker started throwing around her famous comments, some of them pretty salty. The play has R-rated language but is literate and sophisticated rather than smutty. While the play is designed as one 80-minute act, there is an unnecessary (to me) blackout pause to divide it into two scenes. Since nothing essentially changes and the setting is timeless, that moment creates a stumble in the mood.