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Art, Life & Show-Biz

(l. to r.) Helen Gallagher, Lola Pashalinski, Valda Setterfield,
and Ain Gordon discuss Art, Life & Show-Biz
(Photo: © Dona Ann McAdams)
Ain Gordon's Art, Life & Show-Biz exudes a charm and joy you can't beat with a stick -- not that you'd want to, unless one of your darker neuroses was acting up. The show's effectiveness is due to the spotlight being focused on top-lined players Helen Gallagher, Lola Pashalinski, and Valda Setterfield. In the extensive stretch of the show business world where art overlaps with commerce, these women -- each of them now 60- or 70-something -- have had dizzying careers.

The participant whom you might be inclined to give a mild rap across the knuckles is Gordon, who grants himself this billing: "Written, transcribed, and directed by..." He also appears as moderator of the talky outing, which occupies a talk-show-like set that is attributed to no one. As Gordon's title suggests, and as various slides (by Darren Chilton and the ubiquitous Gordon) projected on an up-stage screen seem to confirm, the busy interlocutor is determined to make pithy comments about art and life and how the relationship between them confounds but maybe also enhances each -- or something along those bloated lines.

During the course of Art, Life & Show-Biz, Gordon blah-blah-blahs away about art and life, referring at least twice to the soup-and-art conceit that Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner hit on in their infinitely superior The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Gordon eventually works himself up into quite a lather about the playwright's dilemma of turning life into art when life can be so much more challenging than art and therefore is potentially much more involving, but he's not saying anything we haven't heard many times before -- and much more eloquently expressed.

Implying -- or maybe he states it outright -- that he set out to compose a play for the three actors involved but found that their lives enthralled him more than any comedy-drama he might dream up, Gordon has taken their true-life stories and arranged them as a multi-scene, three-act, intermissionless play of about 100 minutes in length. As he and his subjects read or don't read from clearly highlighted pages in the binders they rarely set down, the three stage vets recall what it was in their childhoods that led them to show business, describe how they entered it, reveal what their climbs to prominence entailed, confide how they endured setbacks, and give accounts of their current activities.

The irony is that the substance is engaging, even though Gordon's framework is not only shallow but derivative and despite the fact that, from time to time, you wish the fellow would just shut up. Nevertheless, it's to Gordon's credit that he chose to feature women whose curricula vitae are so unalike. Gallagher started as a Broadway baby and grew up on the Main Stem. Pashalinski is a founding member of Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous Theatrical Company and, for many years, knew only the pleasures and perils of Off-Off-Broadway. Setterfield, who studied dance with Marie Rambert, emigrated to America, where her first decade was spent terping for Merce Cunningham.

The fun and occasional heartbreak of Art, Life & Show-Biz is watching and listening while these veterans recount, often as savory gossip, what they've undergone. "Mean, mean and evil," Gallagher says about Jerome Robbins, who choreographed a couple of her early shows. But she loved him, nevertheless -- which isn't how she felt about Agnes de Mille, who cast her and then picked on her. Setterfield, whose career was interrupted at 40 when she was hit by a train (she was in an automobile someone else was driving), reports the astonishing news that, at one point, the Cunningham troupe was supported by money John Cage won answering queries about mushrooms on the Italian version of The $64,000 Question. Pashalinski notes that the low point of her life was the time she had to take a job toiling in a zirconium plant. (Woe is her!)

The stage ladies relive great moments, too -- and when they do, they glow with recollection. Gallagher remembers what it was like to look up to the balcony when she won her second Tony (for No, No, Nanette) and see the chorus kids cheering her on. Setterfield -- who, not so incidentally, is Gordon's mother -- tells about the day in Rambert's class when she was recognized by the great teacher as the only one who understood what was going on. Pashalinski, after mentioning how difficult it was for her to leave Ludlum's troupe, kvells in her staunch Gertrude Stein-like way about the satisfaction of co-writing and performing in Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving with her professional-and-otherwise partner Linda Chapman.

The tales told are amusing and instructive -- perhaps most valuable for performers appraising their own careers -- and none of them might have been set before theatergoers had Ain Gordon not decided to tackle the project and then been smart enough to ask the right questions of his illustrious interviewees. So, after that mild knuckle rap he earns for the pretense and ostentation he brings to Art, Life & Show-Biz, he may also deserve a hug of gratitude for inviting three grand gals to strut their stuff.


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