“You leave the theatre feeling like you just spent the evening with Bette Davis!” exclaimed audience member Adrienne Pellegrino on opening night of playwright Elizabeth Fuller’s Me and Jezebel, a delightful treat being served up at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson through February 6.
Bette Davis had a reputation for being acerbic, determined and aggressive, all personal qualities magnified in her performances. In 1938, Davis won her second Academy Award for the role of headstrong Julie Marsden in William Wyler’s Jezebel. Fuller uses that name in the title of Me and Jezebel—initially a memoir adapted into this play—to reference Davis, the explosive character who imposed upon her family.
This legendary personality turned the lives of her tranquil Westport, Connecticut hosts upside down.
In 1985, 77-year-old Davis accompanied a mutual friend to the Fuller house one evening for dinner. The next day Davis called and asked to stay with the couple a night or two due to the New York hotel strike and the need for a quiet place to work on her biography. The star-struck Liz [Fuller] readily agreed—much to the dismay of her author husband, John Fuller.
This overnight stretched into a month-long invasion in which Davis dictated grocery lists without offering to pay, required a firm mattress and made numerous phone calls to Hollywood, Paris and Rome in a time when long distance calls were anything but free. Adding fuel to Davis’ already enflamed temper was her daughter’s tell-all book, My Mother’s Keeper, which was published that same month. Davis was seeking sanctuary from reporters, and what better place than this bucolic locale.
Directed by Theatre Three veteran Bradlee E. Bing, Me and Jezebel is a two-character comedy featuring Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni as Elizabeth Fuller and Marci Bing as Bette Davis. Both actresses deliver tour de force performances in their equally challenging roles.
Castrogiovanni’s Liz serves as narrator with the additional task of magically morphing at times into the 4-year-old playwright’s son, Christopher, at other times into husband John, holy roller Grace, and even a restaurant waiter.
Among the standout moments, is an argument between Liz and John, who is fed up with Davis’ extended stay. Both characters come to life simultaneously in Castrogiovanni’s versatile hands. Liz’s devotion is deep, initiated when as a child her O’l Ma granny introduced her to Davis’ films, and by Act II, she has adopted Davis’ mannerisms and fashion, which makes for an amusing vision—like an extra in All About Eve.
The task of recreating the legendary Bette Davis is not an easy one, yet an audible gasp is heard from the audience upon Bing’s first entrance as she resurrects Davis for the stage. Bing captures every nuance of Davis, from her staccato gait to her throaty tone and grandiose gestures punctuated with swirling cigarette smoke. She is a whirlwind crashing the serene Fuller household and spouting Bette-isms, such as “When they stop wanting your autograph, you’re finished,” or “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” Additionally, she spits out condemnations, revealing her jealousy and hatred for Joan Crawford.
There is a glimpse of a warm, caring side when interacting with Liz’s 4-year-old son during a visit to McDonald’s. Christopher flies into a tantrum when his happy meal doesn’t contain the airplane he wanted. Davis explains you don’t always get what you want and offers her disappointment at not being cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind as an example. But the following year she was offered Julie in Jezebel, and the rest is history. Chris hangs on her every word and the tantrum subsides.
Bradlee Bing and his wife Marci have been connected with Theatre Three since the early days of the playhouse. He formerly served as artistic director and is presently on Theatre Three’s Board of Directors. With this production, Marci gains yet another acting credit to her already impressive body of work.
Randall Parsons’ set, complete with receding forest green columns framing the detailed Fuller living room, is as attractive as it is serviceable for the actors. The lighting by Robert W. Henderson, Jr. emphasizes the living space while allowing the columns to function as a backdrop for the stage.
As director of Me and Jezebel, Bing has created a free-spirited, impeccably timed romp. This is a fun-filled evening of theater with just a touch of sentimentality.
Theatre Three is located at 412 Main Street in Port Jefferson. Call 631-928-9100 or visit theatrethree.com for more info, including tickets and show times.
Barbara Anne Kirshner is a regular contributor to DansPapers.com and the author of Madison Weatherbee-The Different Dachshund.