The Burnett surrogate here is called Helen (Donna Lynne Champlin), and she's first seen behind a scrim, designed by Walt Spangler, that shows the roof of a Hollywood building overlooking the hills where the famous sign that used to read "Hollywoodland" blares. Helen is thinking back to 1941 and to life with mother Louise (Michele Pawk) and Nanny (Linda Lavin) as it unfolded in a shabby apartment that featured a Murphy bed, a Pullman kitchen, and little more. That's where she grew up after she and her grandmother traveled from Texas to join Louise, who'd gone ahead seeking a career as a celebrity interviewer.
Before you can say "Edward G. Robinson," young Helen (Sara Niemietz) and Grandma are ensconced and wondering how to make ends meet as it becomes apparent that, although Louise has had pieces published, she is going nowhere faster -- except into a bottle, where divorced husband and father Jody (Frank Wood) has already settled. Nanny, a Christian Scientist, is loving but offers no encouragement to the dreams of her daughter or granddaughter; she wants to see Louise marry Bill (Patrick Clear), an unexciting suitor who might provide the three women with economic security. Louise, however, is stuck on a married bit player who impregnates her and then flees. Only after giving birth to Alice and barely escaping arrest for running a bookie joint out of the family's cramped quarters does Louise agree to marry Bill.
Ten years later, as Act II follows an attenuated Act I, Bill has not helped the family find their footing, a non-turn of events that is hurried past in one paltry sentence. Nanny is still grousing about her imagined heart condition as well as everyone else's pie-in-the-sky ambitions, regardless of Helen's budding talent. Louise, succumbing to alcohol, is driving Bill away. And Jody is not doing well, either. Then Helen happens upon a patron who gives her $1000 to try her luck as a performer in New York. She gets a break on The Ed Sullivan Show, returns home with a few bucks, and takes the incipiently delinquent Alice (Emily Graham-Handley) back to Manhattan. Louise and Nanny, arm in arm and wearing designer Judith Dolan's convincing period outfits, walk off into lighting designer Howell Binkley's glowing sunset.
That Hollywood Arms moves along with the relaxed lope of certain memoirs is due undoubtedly to its being drawn from One More Time, Burnett's memoir. Perhaps Hamilton, whose idea the adaptation is said to have been, thought the team could wring some honest sentiment from this story of hard times leavened by more pleasurable moments. For instance, though Louise and Nanny bicker regularly, there are times when they actually enjoy each other's company. That occasional harmony is reflected in literal harmony when, now and then, Louise grabs her ukulele and she and Nanny toss off such ditties as "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along." The narrative is not only familiar from Burnett's talk-shows stints, it's familiar dramaturgical territory. Had Burnett and Hamilton not thrown in as many extraneous scenes as they have or had they explained more about Louise's vague longings for work and her weak follow-through, they still might not have skirted the clichés that can crop up in chronicles of drunkards.
A crucial sequence in Hollywood Arms occurs when Helen returns from a night of ushering at the movies to explain that the projector had broken down and she had entertained the dismayed audience by acting out all the parts in the Betty Grable-John Payne flick they'd been watching. Donna Lynne Champlin gives a sporting try at this hunk of unfunny stand-up material but makes little progress, though it's difficult not to imagine Burnett herself being thigh-slappingly funny with the same material. (Later, by the way, Helen is heard doing the same routine during her Ed Sullivan appearance and we hear what's supposed to be the TV audience reacting very favorably.) If Champlin had sung "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," the ditty that put Burnett on the entertainment map, the yuks might have come; as it is, Champlin ends her routine with a solid version of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," chosen most likely for its symbolic weight.
The singing in Hollywood Arms doesn't mean that this enterprise is a musical. Had it been, director Hal Prince might have done more with it. Yes, he has 20 Tonys -- but none of them were in recognition of his work on straight plays, and that's for good reason. A theater whiz with an eye for visual impact, Prince has never shone as an interpreter of text; here, seemingly, he has too often guided the actors toward lending musical comedy "oomph" to scenes where realism is required. Linda Lavin, in a tight perm and with very thin lips, is as strong as ever but -- when not warbling -- is held to one showy note. Michele Pawk, stepping away from musicals for a change, gets her teeth into the role of a purposeless woman. Frank Wood has the proper shakes for Jody. Champlin and Sara Niemietz are spunky; so are Leslie Hendrix as a bleached-blonde neighbor and Nicolas King as her son (the kid is fast with a punchline). Emily Graham-Handley and Patrick Clear do what they can with their roles.