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The Whiskey Maiden, Reconsidered

Chris Kelley’s wonderful play closes October 24, at Theatre of NOTE

By Myron Meisel



Darrett Sanders, left, and Carl J. Johnson in The Whiskey Maiden (photo by James Olsen & John Kenower)

Darrett Sanders, left, and Carl J. Johnson in The Whiskey Maiden (photo by James Olsen & John Kenower)


Chris Kelley’s The Whiskey Maiden, incisively reviewed in Stage Raw by Lovell Estell III, deserves (and needs) as much support and attention as the critical community (and audience) can muster. Kelley’s association with Theatre of NOTE has been long and productive (particularly The Wreck of the Unfathomable, inspired by The Tempest, which won an L.A. Weekly Award for adaptation), but this show plunges headlong deeper into testimony of the soul than any others of his I’ve encountered.

Though in no remote sense an adaptation, The Whiskey Maiden plainly takes its inspiration from The Iceman Cometh, arguably a more hubristic enterprise than monkeying with Shakespeare. The thrall of booze may not be its subject, though it is certainly its underlying motif. When there’s no kick in the sauce any longer, one knows that sustaining illusions are being undermined, and no good can come of that in the alkie world of self-medicated amnesia.

What’s bracing is that everything O’Neill tackled has been thoroughly reconceived in century-later terms, most impressively in some of the most originally-wrought dialogue I’ve heard in a long while: snappy, cryptic, cynical and ingenuous all at the same time. Better still, Kelley’s own production transforms what might read stilted on the page into something rich and strange and alive, especially in the mouth of leading man Darrett Sanders’ Bill, a Boudu-like figure living under the tracks in Carson who is peremptorily invited with his younger buddy Danny (Joe Mahon) to a posh party in a palatial Newport Beach mansion with its own yacht on the Lagoon. It’s a little like a badly-mannered My Man Godfrey crossed with a Viridiana-like misanthropy, in which the remnants of O’Neill sentimentality come across more as leavening integrity than obssessive excess.

Sanders has had all the fixings to have become a star with the right casting in the wrong kind of movies. Consistently inventive and a true original, he brings a swashbuckling indifference to his recalcitrantly lost soul here, and he wraps his line readings in conspicuously conscious wit even as he projects a comically terminal cluelessness with a panicked denial of his own sense of fateful purpose. For this performance alone, The Whiskey Maiden is utterly riveting.

Some of the plotting and a bit more of the motivations may seem obscure or arbitrary, the play is far from exemplary or fully realized, and the later, more pointedly allegorical scenes slacken from the crackling misanthropy of most of the setup and development. Instead, Kelley’s play and his direction of his cast do something perhaps more important, and even more entertaining: they keep us on our toes, amused and appalled, and assay interesting ambitions that make more conventional theater experiences seem lamely less daring.

Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through Oct. 24. (323) 856-8611, Running time: one hour, 90 minutes.