Miss America’s Ugly Daughter – Bess Myerson & Me – A LARF MAGAZINE THEATRE REVIEW

If there’s one truth in this town, it’s that nearly everyone lives in a bubble.   The ones that don’t, always pay a high price of admission.

Barra Grant is the daughter of the late Bess Myerson, who rose to fame in 1945 as Miss America, the first Jewish American to do so. She then led a glamorous life in the spotlight as a regular panelist on the all important game shows of the time, including I’ve Got a Secret and served as a presidential advisor and even ran a failed senatorial campaign. Miss America 1945 (maybe not so coincidentally The Allies defeated Nazi Germany same year) was definitely big stuff back then, who eventually would be arrested for petty shoplifting, permanently disgracing her perfect Americana image, leading her to chase after men with money and forever live in a bubble even and especially to and over her only daughter. It is the daughter, Barra, the star of this show, who tells the tale of having to grow up under such Crawford-like dictatorship, and I don’t mean, Broderick or Cindy. Let’s put it this way. According to the daughter, Bess Myerson is to motherhood what Charles Manson is to social etiquette. And, Barra, the lonely daughter, was her ottoman for her to rest her tired stinky famous feet.

The wonderful Monica Piper plays “Mom” Bess Myerson via a backstage mic, “calling on the phone”.

The show is set in Barra’s apartment in L.A. The lights come up and we see a royal throne center stage with a king or queen’s robe casually laying over it. It’s never addressed until the end when our star sits in it, wrapping up her final thoughts; the rest of the time it’s oddly out of place in a young girl’s apartment. Barra, “the daughter” begins telling us her tale of growing up in the 60’s, accompanied by the requisite video playing in the middle of the set to set the mood of the times. The phone rings. It’s Bess. The mother. Needing to talk with her daughter. To annoy her about something or other or she can’t sleep or she wants to come to LA or she hates the way she looks. It’s all placed on Barra’s shoulders. And to her credit, as a daughter, Barra is amazing. As a daughter. There for her mother at every single random whim. Catering to her. Solving her problems. Calming her nerves. Reassuring her.

Norma Desmond but without the dead monkey.

Besides being the daughter of Bess Myerson, who is Barra? That’s her journey to find out, as she tries the acting thing, which doesn’t work out and finally meets a man and they marry but then he dies. I’m oversimplifying it, but you get the idea. The show is neatly packed, adroitly directed, and commanded by the one and only Bess Myerson’s Ugly Daughter. And by the way. I did kinda feel ripped off. Barra ain’t ugly. Far from it. As if a silent movie star gliding effortlessly through her sorted past, ever seeking light at the end of a tunnel promise of a better future. Cause, after all, that’s what we all really want, isn’t it? To know, that whatever is making our current lives miserable, that there is hope simply because there is tomorrow.

One-person shows put on by children of famous people has become its own genre. I’ve even sort of dabbled with my infamous one-man show I Eat People Like You for Breakfast! – about me and Jerry Lewis, even though Jerry wasn’t my father; it did have a father/son aspect. The template is usually one of two. It’s either the child who just couldn’t live up to their parents’ stellar public image or connect with them in any real meaningful way, or the you may know them as a great artist and entertainer, but they were horrible people in private life. This show is both.   Berra is the little lost child who survived to tell the tale of how she climbed out of the deepest hole in the world created by one of the biggest showbiz beasts of all time, eventually carving out a decent life for herself.

The “phone calls from mother” segments are Neil Simon quality.

This is the classic case of poor little rich girl, and that would’ve worked fine, were it not for the fact that as far as I could see, the central character (the daughter, Barra) couldn’t even exist without the existence of the mother, Bess Myerson. In other words, Bess Myerson’s Ugly Daughter has the propensity to bring us, the viewing observing non-participating audience, directly into the loop created by the daughter, the daughter created by the mother, the end result is, unfortunately, the audience is indirectly abused by Bess Myerson. There is no filter of hope or creativity to shield us from Barra’s extreme long term downgrading of her self-esteem.

More to the point, this show wasn’t contextualized within today’s social standards, specifically the #MeToo Movement, as well as independence from rich needy mom. Barra’s recount of Bess’s into the breach willingness to be abused and used by powerful men, seems to be color blind to the facts of the last 18 months vis a vi the blatant abuse of hard working serious professional actresses by powerful fat and lazy men. Yes, Barra’s story starts in the early/mid-Sixties when she was a budding teenager and yet, she’s telling us the story now. And therefore, unless I missed something, it would be incumbent upon the producers of the show to make sure our trusted on stage narrator (and star), at least squeezes that in. But to my recollection, that’s just not the case. This story is told within a bubble of time, encasing the bubble of Barra’s upbringing.

Ultimately, It’s a Story of Class Dominance

In these hard times for most, it’s hard to care about the princess stuck in the tower. And, even if we did, we need to like the princess first, and that’s where the show lost me. It’s not that I didn’t like Barra or her performance; it’s that it was so real, there was no performance per se and therefore I was detached. It was the story of an actual victim of a terribly abusive famous mother, who flittered from one rich guy to the next, leaving everything in her wake, including and especially her own daughter.

What she lacks in slick presentation, she makes up in authenticity. One has to keep reminding themselves that this is a real story and the person who experienced it is the one standing in front of us telling us the story. That is lost on us because the story itself if so unpredictably bizarre. The humor between the cracks of pain were there, I just didn’t think everyone in the audience that night could contextualize them.   Basically, when a survivor makes funny while they tell you their very painful story, they are signaling that they’re okay and indeed they want you, the audience, to be okay too. I thought many times the show was much funnier than it even knew and certainly funnier than the audience of oldie but goodies did that night. That’s right. I also review the audience I’m surrounded by. 499 people can be wrong. I’ve seen it multiple times in my day.

Barra Grant was not made to be a story-teller. She was cast as the story.

Where the show would’ve been enhanced 10 fold to my liking is if Barra had connected to the audience much more directly and earlier on. In my opinion only, Barra should’ve broken the 4th wall and maybe even done a teeny bit of audience work. It’s adds that extra third dimension we as an audience need to subconsciously know that we’re gonna be okay. That the world is gonna be okay. It’s nothing less than that. Otherwise, a show like this can easily fall into very ugly self-parody. And that nearly happened twice, during the one or two soliloquies, when Barra went downstage, lone spotlight, and sad music playing on cue. I don’t know how to fix that and maybe it’s fine. It’s just this particular night I saw the show, it seemed one inch too close to self-mockery. Like a very bad Star Trek segment.

Leading us on in an entire set piece where the mother (so brilliantly played by Monica Piper via backstage) is the omnipresent dominating force, to the point, where I felt domineered myself and I was just in the audience. “Bess” calls and tells Barra she’s coming out to LA and can she pick her up at the airport. There’s an entire section about this and the next thing I knew, the mother never came to LA. Did I miss something? Maybe. But it was weird.   Bess calls again and again and each time Barra assures us she’s got the trick solution, but it never works. The “phone calls from mother” segments are Neil Simon quality.

#MeToo Be or Not to Be

Barra’s value is authenticity, being the actual daughter of the super famous abusive person. But authenticity isn’t always entertainment. You’ve got to contextualize the times the action took place, and bring it into the present. There’s no question Bess Myerson was nuts. Mentally ill. And Monica Piper’s insistent phone calls as the mother to the daughter was the one basic comedy gag we can all relate to. I can’t relate to growing up under the shadow of a famous parent; I know not many who could, save for my late friend Francesca Hilton, and Kelly Carlin’s, who’s show A Carlin Home Companion I reviewed for this Journal a few years back. What made Kelly’s show work in particular is that her show was all about finding the perfect balance between understanding her father and getting the love from both parents any young teenage girl deserves.   With Bess Myerson’s Ugly Daughter, there is no balance because it’s ostensivevly one-sided and closure to the lifelong ordeal is uncertain. There was never any question as to why her mother was like that and only at the very end, did Barra, finally sitting on the royal throne, have any epiphany whatsoever and by then, for my money it was almost too late.

TMZ Meets Queen Lear

What this show does have in spades are inside flashes to the weird cloistered world of fame and its affects on the family. What I find profoundly absurd is that it seemed as though we were being told a story from start to finish with no creamy filling. There were absolutely no good times to talk about. And the story which was told was, by nature, only one side of that story. The subject of the one person show was not its star Barra, it was Barra’s star, her mother Bess. As told to us by the daughter. What was missing was objective introspection. Not sympathy for the bad guy, but deep clear introspection from the victim

Because, at the end of the day, whether we grow up under a famous parent or not, to be fully human means living a life with the perfect balance of enlightenment and mystery.   Which is almost the textbook definition of charisma.

Sag, March 1, 2019