“I’m staring at the woman on the corner/
It’s fucked up when your mind’s playing tricks on ya”
– Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”, We Can’t Be Stopped (1991)
Have you ever wondered what Julie & Julia would be like if it were less about cooking and more about unsolved murder and conspiracy theories? Then this play may interest you.
Granted, that might not be the first thing on your mind as you walk into the theatre. You’ll likely be struck by the literal dichotomy of the set: one side the finely-manicured home office of an Old Hollywood author (complete with bar and writing desk); the other side a shabby basement/workplace/bedroom for a collegiate Millennial. As Sinatra tunes play over the speakers, you can’t help but look at the intricately detailed set and think “This is just gonna be the weirdest production of The Odd Couple, right?”
The differences between these two spaces are as obvious as the women who inhabit them. Over the course of the 90 minutes that follow, those lines become blurred. As do the lines of fantasy and reality, drive and obsession, and the thrill of solving a crime with fear of danger knocking at your door.
From the 1930s to the ‘60s, Dorothy Kilgallen (pronounced “kill-GAL-en”) rubbed elbows with America’s showbiz elite. From the best of Broadway to Hollywood royalty, she spent nearly 30 years talking and writing about anyone and everyone worth having their name mentioned. When she began writing about members of organized crime, it added a new element of danger to her work. So when she was found dead in her home in 1965, it raised more questions than it answered.
In 2017, 19-year-old Alexis Jones (pronounced “Jones”) is a community college student looking for a little direction in life. A true crime buff, she’s delighted when a friend points her toward the mystery surrounding Dorothy’s death. She turns her curiosity about the case into a Serial-style podcast with the hopes of solving the mystery on her own. The show proves popular, but it isn’t long before Alexis begins receiving the wrong kind of attention for her snooping.
Going into this play knowing nothing but who wrote and directed it, I was mostly curious as to how it compared to writer Allison Page’s last full-length, 2015’s Hilarity. There are similar themes – the heroine with the “trainwreck” of a mother; the best friend/de facto mother-figure trying to set the heroine straight; self-destruction and toxic relationships – but the central character of Hilarity is considered “over the hill”. Alexis Jones has her whole life ahead of her, which leads her to do things without thinking through the consequences or heeding the advice of those closest to her. When her podcast becomes popular and genuine sense of danger is introduced, it scares her just as much as it strengthens her resolve. She’s afraid of winding up like her institutionalized mother, but shuns the affections of those who could help her prevent that very thing.
KilGallen/Jones is essentially two stories and theatrical formats mashed together: 1 – a neo-noirish thriller-comedy about falling down the rabbit hole; and 2 – a one-woman show told in the style of a classic noir from post-WWII America. The former is the more prominent of the two, but I’d be curious to see a full-length version of the latter. Maybe that’s because the solo shows I’ve seen recently have been a mixed bag and this play wisely keeps the format to small doses, but there’s also the fact that a confessional story of a forgotten showbiz veteran/investigative journalist is irresistible.
That’s she’s played so well by Marie O’Donnell doesn’t hurt either. O’Donnell (who also starred in Hilarity) plays Dorothy Kilgallen as hilariously anecdotal when she’s “on”, but touchingly vulnerable in silent moments (eg. she’s seen visibly hurt by jokes at her expense by Frank Sinatra, but easily tears him down when she speaks to us). As an investigative journalist, she’s cut from that Lois Lane/Laura Bow/Jessica Fletcher mold that makes her easy to underestimate, but no less confrontational when searching for a story.
The younger members of the cast don’t steal the show as easily – with less stage time, O’Donnell is clearly making the most of it – but they fare well. At times they appear to be rushing through Page’s dialogue as if they were trying to catch a runaway train, but it never feels particularly forced. That’s especially true for actress Lauren Garcia, whose dialogue as “Rae” jumps from clichéd Millennial to maternal at the drop of a hat. In the wrong hands, that could have been disastrous. George Coker is much better at handling Gordo’s comedy than his moments of gravitas, but when he’s funny, everyone else on stage simply disappears.
And then, of course, there’s Sarah Brazier as Alexis Jones. A character who comes off as a shitty friend and opportunist is hardly what one would think of as sympathetic. Thankfully, the doe-eyed Brazier gives her a lot of heart. Like Garcia and Coker, she sometimes tries to sprint through the dialogue, but she never loses sight of Alexis’ core. When Jones begins her podcast, we want to see her succeed; when she becomes obsessed with Dorothy, we just want to see her out of danger. Not as easy as it sounds, but pulled off well here.
Speaking of that danger, thank God there are laughs in this thing, because the majority of this play would have you think Page and director Ellery Schaar were staging Wait Until Dark, what with all the unbearable tension they build. As artistic director of the sketch troupe Killing My Lobster, Page is no stranger to comedy. Some of the funniest lines of Kilgallen/Jones happen in the aftermath of danger. Such as when Alexis responds to hate mail by asking “Is [that] any worse than dick pix? ‘Cause everyone on Snapchat gets those.” Equally funny is her Serial-but-not-Serial podcast Sequential, the intro for which makes Alexis sound like the internet version of Elvira. And any time Gordo is allowed to say, well, anything it usually leaves you in stiches.
The terror and comedy are well-balanced by Schaar and her crew, including sound designer Gregory Scharpen and lighting designer Beth Cockrell. I do wish transitions had been more than “EXIT: this character,” though I can see how it saved time. I also wish Alexis’ desk had been moved several times during the play, as its center-stage placement for the entire show made it often hard to make out what was happening on the sofa. Still, the atmosphere was consistent overall.
At this point, it’s safe to say that everyone knows Nietzsche’s quote about “star[ing] into the abyss,” but few consider what it really means. Kilgallen/Jones is a story about how one woman fell in 52 years ago, and how another woman is in danger of falling in after her. It’s about the fine line that separates a hobby from an obsession, and determination from leaping without looking. It’s a dangerous spot to fall from if you don’t have anyone to pull you back.
Also, stale Cheetos are unacceptable. Always.
Kilgallen/Jones runs until March 25 at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit the show’s official website here.