On the night of August 21, 1960, a singular set of circumstances brought together Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, acting coach Paula Strasberg and former Broadway star and accused murderess Libby Holman in one hotel room during a power outage in Reno, Nevada. If it hadn’t really happened, Atlanta playwright Topher Payne almost certainly would have made it up: the match of writer to outrageous subject is so deliciously fitting.
In his latest show, The Only Light in Reno, at Georgia Ensemble through January 26, Payne imagines what might have transpired during that long, hot night when these five enormous personalities were stuck in a ninth-floor suite at the Mapes Hotel during a Sierra Mountain wildfire with little to do but drink, pop pills, wear glamorous clothes, bare their souls and insult each other with cuttingly witty zingers. Clearly, Reno is Topher-country.
One of the obvious challenges here — for author, actors and audience alike — is that there are several famous characters on stage. Even in a play with a single famous character, we tend to watch every movement and listen to every utterance, mentally filling in the features and mannerisms of the real person, trying to see if the actor playing the celebrity measures up.
Payne and his actors wisely dive right in and move well beyond mere impersonation: we get a basic sketch to satisfy our rudimentary expectations — voice, mannerisms, appearance — but after that, there’s admirably little fear on the writer’s or the actors’ parts in imaginatively making these people their own. I especially admired Rachel Sorsa’s breathy, babe-in-the-woods Marilyn. The unexaggerated, unaffected way she dreamily walks over to a ringing phone and holds the receiver to her ear for a long moment before whispering a timid “Hello?” is so spot-on and telling — of both the real celebrity and Payne’s re-creation of her — it earns a chuckle of recognition from the audience.
Kate Donadio is great at limning Taylor as the sharp-as-a-tack, scheming antithesis to Sorsa’s guileless Monroe: they’re similarly glamorous stars who simply tick at entirely different speeds. Johnny Drago draws Clift as the troubled peacekeeper and caustic observer of it all, whose own demons are of an interior, ineffable and personal sort. Elizabeth A. Genge and Shelly McCook have a bit more leeway in portraying the less familiar characters of Strasberg and Holman: the no-nonsense, black-clad matron is utterly at odds with the colorful, brassy, uninhibited bon vivant. Genge’s Strasberg strives to be the salt of the earth; McCook’s Holman prides herself on being the pepper.
Payne may not have known these particular people, but clearly he’s done his research. Even better, he knows actors and show-business types — their vanities, vulnerabilities, their admirable qualities and their foibles — all too well. Much of what is said has an incisive emotional intelligence, and there are genuinely earned laughs throughout. But nonetheless, no matter how skillfully done, I think a lot of audience members will occasionally snap out of the vivid dream any play is meant to induce and wonder if Monroe really would have said such-and-such or if Taylor really might have done something differently.
And the first act is slow, perhaps because there has to be a lot of exposition. We might be familiar with the general outline and mythology behind these people’s lives, but the precise juncture they’re at and what brings them to Reno must be spelled out. Although Payne is skilled at this, an awful lot of it is necessary to establish the back-story: Clift is postaccident, Taylor has married Eddie Fisher but has yet to meet Richard Burton, Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller is reaching its end, and so on.
Torpor and languor are a nicely evoked part of the atmosphere here, but unfortunately, in spite of a lot of stage business — multiple entrances and exits, some physical comedy — stillness and stasis inevitably enter the picture, as well. There’s no central thing for these people to talk about, no single overarching concern, occurrence or revelation in either act. There are instead a lot of them. The lines are razor sharp, but the play’s focus feels strangely indistinct. Each of the characters has a sort of Breakfast Club soul-baring moment: Monroe’s final, lyrical monologue about climbing a mountain was very nice and encapsulatory, but others seem forced. Strasberg’s sudden, emotional defense of James Dean, for example, comes from nowhere. Everyone needed a breakdown, I suppose, and that was the one she was dealt.
Still, fans of Payne — or Monroe, Taylor and Clift — will find plenty to enjoy here, and Georgia Ensemble has given one of Atlanta’s most talented and prolific playwrights a top-notch production. Jonathan Rollins’ set and Abby Parker’s costumes bring the period and place to sparkling life, and the lighting — several times of day and night, a hotel room with electricity and without — by Bryan Rosengart tells a story of its own.