By Ed Rampell of The Hollywood Progressive
June 12, 2014
The “playwrights” for Harold & Stella: Love Letters are the eponymous Harold Clurman and Stella Adler, those stage legends who co-founded the fabled Group Theatre back in the 1930s. Stella, but of course, went on to become America’s foremost apostle of “Method” acting after her circa 1935 trip to the Moscow Art Theatre and meetings with thespian guru Constantin Stanislavski. As a teacher (and high priestess) Stella’s students (and acolytes) included Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro and other luminaries of stage and screen who have lit up the creative constellations from the Great White Way to Hollywood.
Love Letters is based on the correspondence between Group director Clurman and actor Adler, when the creative collaborators and talents were separated by a continent, around 1942. Harold was in La-La-Land laboring in the vineyards of the film industry while Stella was on the East Coast, mostly in Manhattan. The private letters reveal the tempestuous nature of their working and romantic relationship. (Hey, weren’t we taught to never read other people’s personal post? But I guess in this post-Snowden Age anything goes!)
During the one-acter both actors read from the script of letters. Understudy Clay Wilcox portrayed Clurman at the opening and is scheduled to do so again June 13. His Clurman is alternately voluble, gruff, endearing, charming and funny as he writes to his beloved “Boo Boo,” alternately chiding and praising the object of his affection (and exasperation). Wilcox is a good actor who has been in big and little screen productions such as Robert Redford’s 2007 Lions for Lambs and the FX TV network’s Justified, and when he’s in character and in the moment he brings Harold alive. But probably because he is understudying for Bill Ratner (who takes over the Clurman role June 17), Wilcox’s eyes were always fixed on the script, which he clearly had not memorized as he stumbled over some words, and worse, he never once looked at his pretty co-star.
Which is pretty remarkable given that the redheaded Arianna Ratner is quite stunning as Stella. Her Adler is alternately imperious, vulnerable, loving, materialistic, career-conscious and always complicated. Stella’s politics are revealed, as she hobnobs with the era’s notable liberals, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, and refers to herself as a “Red” (which might explain Ratner’s red gown). Of course, the high living Stella, who was born into a famous Yiddish theater family, spent lavishly and drained her future husband Harold of whatever cash he earned in Hollywood’s dream factories. Stella may have admired the workers — she just didn’t want to live like them.
The script needs some exposition (it’s called “artistic license”, methinks). If you’re not familiar with the real life characters’ back stories you might scratch your noggin and ponder, for example, who the oft-referred to “Ellen” is? (Stella’s daughter from a previous marriage.) There are also references to a Hollywood producer called “Wagner”, when the script presumably means Walter Wanger, who worked with leftist talents such as screenwriter, John Howard Lawson. And, pray tell, what is that movie Clurman is toiling on for the producer and in what capacity is he working on this film? Inquiring minds want to know. To find out you just might have to read the new biography by Love Letters’ producer, Sheana Ochoa, who is selling and signing her Stella! Mother of Modern Acting at each performance.
The production is part of the freewheeling Hollywood Fringe Festival and is being presented in a diminutive venue. I’ve heard of 99-seat theatres but Bliss Art House Café is more like a 9-seater — but this reviewer enjoyed the intimacy and immediacy such a small space, sans props and sets, bestowed. After the opening a brief film clip of and about the unforgettable Stella Adler was screened. This is a must-see for aficionados of the venerable art of acting, and in particular, of the much-vaunted Method, as well as for voyeurs who love to pry into the private lives of geniuses.