You sometimes get the feeling, after reading a particularly good obituary about an uncommonly accomplished life, that the person you just read about should have gone on living forever.
And you sometimes wish, after seeing a particularly gifted actor perform an uncommonly smart play, that the curtain would never come down.
That sense of instant mourning for something so recently discovered is what I’ll remember best about O’Connell and Company’s excellent production of “The Lady With All the Answers,” based on a 2002 New York Times obituary of Eppie Lederer, better known to millions of Americans as advice columnist Ann Landers.
The one-woman show, by David Rambo and performed with consummate grace and good humor by Mary Kate O’Connell, is the ultimate “Dear Ann Landers” letter. In the spare style of a well-crafted newspaper vignette, it traces the key contours of Lederer’s fascinating life as a left-leaning society woman and her meteoric rise to the position she held for decades as the nation’s most popular newspaper columnist.
Most of the key stories were included in Margalit Fox’s 2002 obituary. These include perhaps the most memorable line in the play, and one that captures the style and attitude that made so many worried mothers and conflicted teens cherish her column over the years:
“I would rather have my column on a thousand refrigerator doors than win a Pulitzer.”
Rambo’s framing device for the play is smart and sure to resonate with procrastinating journalists everywhere. The play opens as O’Connell sits at her typewriter, attempting to plunk out perhaps the most difficult column she’s ever had to write about her divorce from longtime husband Jules. Between typing hard-won lines on her IBM Selectric, Lederer fields phone calls from her ex-husband and twin sister Popo, who writes the rival “Dear Abby” column, occasionally getting up to eat chocolate or put on a Sinatra record while reminiscing about her life and career.
Nearly all the anecdotes are fascinating, though a few clunkers appear in the torrent of words. These include a few gimmicky bits of audience participation that serve to distract from Lederer’s story. A section about her trip to Vietnam that is just a bit overwrought.
It is no small task for one actor to breeze through 90 minutes of dialogue across two acts and to maintain an iron grip on the audience’s attention from the first line to the last. O’Connell, a veteran of Buffalo’s theater scene whose ability to rivet our eyes and ears to the stage is well-documented, does so with such consistent charm and humor that the play goes by in a blink. Before I knew it, I was up on my feet applauding along with the rest of the audience, wondering how the thing could possibly have ended so quickly.
O’Connell gets the lion’s share of the credit for that, with the rest going to Rambo for his excellent script, keen director Anne Gayley and designer Katie Miner, whose homey set looks like it’s been lived in for years. Hasheen DeBerry’s lighting bathes it all in a comforting glow.
There have been few public figures as stalwart in their convictions or as honest about their faults as Lederer was for her millions of readers, and few actors capable of capturing that spirit as well as O’Connell. You may want to see it twice.
What: “The Lady With All the Answers”
When: Through Feb. 23
Where: O’Connell and Company at the Park School, 4625 Harlem Road
Tickets: $20 to $25
Info: 848-0800 or www.oconnellandcompany.com