A Review of The Property Known as Garland
by Tony Phillips
How does she look? That question preoccupies Billy Van Zant’s new play The Property Known as Garland with the same voracity it haunted its titular star. The short answer is 70s television stalwart Adrienne Barbeau makes for a pretty convincing Judy. Unfortunately that’s Judge Judy, not the object of this play’s affection, Judy Garland. But give her a minute. By the time she utters her first “marvelous,” hiking the middle of the word up like an itchy wool skirt, Barbeau has her audience of “pussycats” eating right out of her hand.
This dressing table drama opens backstage an hour before Garland’s final curtain in Denmark, of all places. The star is elegantly wasted, draped across a divan face down at the Falkoner Center in Copenhagen. “Who the fuck are you?” she asks when roused by her harried stage manager, Ed (Kerby Joe Grubb), who is quickly dispatched to round up some mashed potatoes, which she requires in order to take the stage. This unreasonable, J.lo-ish request leaves her alone with her audience and she soon answers her own question by quipping, “Hello, I’m Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli’s mother.”
For the next hour, the audience is treated to variations on that theme. “Hello, I’m Judy Garland, and I’m an alcoholic,” she confesses, toasting with her glass of Blue Nun. And, indeed, she is. In fact, her makeup table doubles as a wet bar and contains more prescription bottles than a Duane Reade, but Garland remains optimistic, or at least her glass is always half-full. Soon, she trots out anecdotes spiked with so many bolded names, one begins to wonder what she needs with mashed potatoes when she’s got all these stories on which to dine.
As Garland swaps her pink dress shirt and black Capri pants for a more stage-worthy, bright orange pantsuit with matching marabou shawl, tales about Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Diana Ross, Grace Kelly, Noel Coward and Ethel Merman unspool. Director Glenn Casale makes the unfortunate choice of dropping the lights with the names, telegraphing the flashbacks in stagy shorthand. The anecdotes begin to pile up so fast and furious that the lighting almost begins to strobe and anyone who knows Baby Gumm is not a new chewing gum for infants will have heard all these legends before. Still, Barbeau really makes them sing. “It’s a chore being Judy Garland,” she admits. The same cannot be said for being with Judy Garland for 85 well-paced minutes.
When Ed returns to call “10-minutes,” he’s talking to the audience as well. This is a play that always lets one know where they are, and when the end comes, it’s impossible not to wonder what Judy’s doing after the show. As she flings open the stage door and stands transfixed by the stage lights and her pounding overture, she wonders, “What have I learned from all this?” She concludes she was “put on this Earth to give,” and she certainly does. One doesn’t have to subscribe to the Marxism tenet “all property is theft” to realize Garland got a pretty raw deal. She jokes the initials of her studio, MGM, stand for “my Goddamn money,” so it’s nice to see Adrienne Barbeau stealing not only this show, but a little bit of Judy back, however briefly.