Charlayne Woodard's new one-woman show, In Real Life, now at the Mark taper Forum, tells the classic show business story, the one you never get tired of hearing, about the talented newcomer from the sticks coming to the big city. In the beginning, Woodard will be rebuffed by the bad, scary New York Theater, we know that from the start. But she'll triumph at the end. And, likeable as she is, we can't help but root for her.
Woodard's story is less contrived that her 1998 show, Neat, and it's laced with little satirical needles. There are sharp-edged depictions of recognizable people - fellow actors like Nell Carter and Andre DeShields - and there's a story, about the staging of the hugely successful Fats Waller show, Ain't Misbehavin', that's already a part of Broadway lore. Woodard dishes some good dish. She can seem a little calculatingly na-ve at times, and her tale has some ragged edges, but In Real Life delivers an entertaining couple of hours.
Fresh out of drama school, Woodard goes straight to New York, where she plans to live a glamorous Upper East Side existence with her boyfriend and go straight onto the Broadway stage as a dramatic actor. There are some stumbles along the way, but, for a novice actor, Woodard hits it pretty big early. It was a good time for black actors, with big gospel and jazz musicals like The Wiz and Eubie rolling in.
It's hard to believe, looking at Woodard's youthful face, all high forehead and wide, expressive mouth, that she was an original cast member in the show which premiered in 1978. Woodard tells us her actorly solution to her lack of dancing skills. Instead of trying to learn some basic steps in a short period of time, she creates a character who can tap dance - "my lady," Woodard calls her - and she comes out firing.
Her account of a clamorous opening night will make your heart race. The audience is standing on its feet, bellowing its appreciation, and Woodard sees a man run down the aisle and pound his hand on the stage. "My God, is that Dustin Hoffman?" says the bemused Woodard.
As fresh-faced and agreeable as Woodard seems, she's apparently quite capable of taking care of herself, thank you. In fact, you wonder if the producers of the show, when they eventually started enumerating all their headaches, might have slipped Woodard onto the list. There's a lengthy section about her ambivalence toward being in Ain't Misbehavin'. So tormented and unfulfilled is she by being in the musical - not a drama - that she begins to sound like the dancer in The Red Shoes.
What Woodard is doing here, of course, is making a case for herself as a dramatic actor. In a sense, the show is an audition. As spellbinding as In Real Life can be, I think she succeeds splendidly. Give her the part.
Stephen Sachs' play Central Avenue, now at the Fountain Theater, is another show business play, capturing the gritty texture of the black jazz scene and the wild, contradictory tenor of the post-World War II era in L.A. It uses both the affecting stories of historic situations to conjure real events.
In the midst of the strivings of the play's coterie of jazz musicians, Sachs introduces Tom Bradley, Daryl Gates, Jack Webb and the labor leaders who were trying to integrate separate black and white musician's unions, giving them all snippets of dialogue in order to create a historic context. But the scenes are so fragmentary and so freighted with significance that they smother the more interesting drama of the jazz sidemen whose stories are the ones we really want to hear.
Still, it's refreshing just to hear the names of the great LA musicians - Charlie Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Benny Carter, Buddy Colette and the rest. Besides, any play in which a character can tell a guest, "Hit the couch and sop some nods," can't be all bad.
In Real Life runs through Sept. 16, at the Mark Taylor Forum and Central Avenue Theater runs through December 16 at the Fountain Theater. This is Ed Newton for KCRW.