More in the spirit of Carrie Fisher than Christina Crawford, performer Barra Grant chronicles her life and that of her famous mother in her engaging and smartly presented self-written solo show, Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson & Me. Nostalgic New Yorkers will have their memories refreshed while others might be delightfully informed. It’s a harrowing, insightful and often very funny 90 minutes.
Willowy, blonde and clad in costume designer Florence Kemper Bunzel’s shimmering all-black ensemble, the mature yet vivacious Ms. Grant’s seasoned dry comic timing is laced with forthrightness as she visually and vocally commands attention. Tossing off plentiful well-honed Nora Ephron-style wry observations which invariably get laughs while imparting unsettling revelations, she evokes the comedic and dramatic artistry of Elaine May. Punchy scene transitions are accompanied by songs of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, as well as Grant’s nifty dance moves.
At the performance under review, the off-stage voice of “The Mother” usually played by Anna Holbrook was wonderfully enacted by Margaret Reed with wicked humor and gradual poignance. Ms. Reed’s participation was pivotal due to Grant’s canny narrative conceit. Grant is in either Manhattan or Los Angeles reminiscing while perpetually taking frantic late-night phone calls from her disgraced and suicidal aged mother in self-imposed Floridian exile.
Prior to becoming a cultural icon as the first Jewish Miss America in 1945, and then a television personality and for a time a New York City political fixture, Bess Myerson was a poverty-stricken Bronx-born child of the Depression with a shaky homelife. Grant deftly charts Myerson’s life trajectory that led to several bad marriages and relationships, a corruption scandal, a shoplifting arrest and her 2014 death in relative obscurity at the age of 90. This fascinating saga is skillfully realized by Grant’s precise, sharp and earthy writing.
We also get the sense of what it is like to be the child of a celebrity and to suffer inadequacy fueled by parental verbal and physical abuse. In the 1970’s, Grant had a decent career as an actress and then as a screenwriter. She would go on to have a loving and long marriage that produced a daughter. Myerson’s neurotic actions are detailed with fierceness, and by the end of the show the core mystery of her odious behavior is cathartically solved.
Director Eve Brandstein’s vibrant staging includes artfully shifting Grant all over the stage for dramatic effect and enhancing the spoken word aspect with superior technical elements, all resulting in an aesthetic and compelling production. Elisha Schaefer’s clever scenic design has a selection of choice furnishings arranged in segments, representing different rooms and locales, allowing Grant to swiftly glide from place to place. A large red velvet chair looms like a throne center stage. Lighting designer Yael Lubetzky’s creative efforts perfectly achieve temporal and emotional variations. Tom Jones’ sound design is adept, and his cool projection design often replicates the luminous sheen of vintage black and white tabloid newspaper photographs, adding more merriment to Grant’s commentary. Composer Mark Adler’s vigorous original score further embellishes the presentation.
Those with their own problematic parents should find Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson & Me to be a prime piece of therapeutic entertainment.
Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson & Me (through March 1, 2020)
Pageant Productions, in association with Canon Theatricals
The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, 10 West 64th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.missamericasuglydaughter.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission