TAMPA — Where are Fred and Ethel Mertz when you need them?
If you remember fondly the episodes of I Love Lucy about the chocolate factory or the wine vat or the health potion Vitameatavegamin, then Suzanne LaRusch's one-woman show is right down your alley. But An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking is only fitfully interesting to anyone who would be quite happy never to see another rerun of the hallowed sitcom.
A big part of the problem is LaRusch's script, co-written with Lucie Arnaz, the great comedian's daughter who also directed. It's 1974, and Ball is doing a Q&A session at a theater, not exactly a pivotal moment in her life. The solo shows that work — say, the late Spalding Gray's monologues — tend to be grounded in meaningful or telling events. Here, Lucy's little existential crisis in her dressing room about whether the audience loves her for herself or just her screen character is hard to care about.
LaRusch interacts with taped voices of fans and employees of the theater (among the voices are those of Lucie and Desi Arnaz Jr.), and it quickly becomes tiresome to have so much of the exposition of the play recited by these unseen, insignificant characters. Especially annoying is the voice over an intercom of a clueless young woman who can't comprehend that Lucy isn't going to be doing her TV show onstage that night.
The lameness of the premise is too bad, because LaRusch is a skilled impersonator of Lucy, especially of her screwball facial expressions and incomparable slapstick. Her pantomime of pulling on a pair of tights is priceless, and she stuffs an impressive amount of chocolate into her mouth. She also has the mannerisms of Ball the hard-driving but vulnerable show business executive down pat, constantly fiddling with her jewelry, tugging at the cuffs of her blouse.
The Q&A covers the high points of Lucy's career, aided by some vintage video projected on a screen above the stage of the Jaeb Theater, which is set up in cabaret-style seating. LaRusch answers questions about how I Love Lucy started in 1951 as an offshoot of Ball's radio show My Favorite Husband, what really happened in that wine vat ("It was like stepping into a vat of slimy eyeballs") and how she did her trademark crying shtick. The show ends with a sentimental tribute to Desi Arnaz, "the most exciting, handsome, frustrating man" in Lucy's life, only suggesting his boozing and womanizing.
In a way, An Evening with Lucille Ball is a missed opportunity. Ball was probably more familiar than any other actor to American audiences for decades, from her days as an ingenue in movies like Du Barry Was a Lady and The Fuller Brush Girl to the Lucy shows on TV to her star turn on Broadway in Wildcat. But LaRusch only scratches the surface of her epic life story.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.