“Sequential ... one story told until it’s over.” So opens Alexis Jones’ first pod cast from her friend’s (Rae’s) basement in Cleveland, Ohio. What starts as an assignment for a community college “TV and Radio” class becomes for this avid lover of True Crime books, shows, and movies an all-grossing obsession. This is especially true when pal and aspiring boyfriend, Gordo, finds an article about the mysterious death of long-ago (as in the ‘40s-‘60s) journalist and quiz show star, Dorothy Kilgallen. Found sprawled dead on her apartment floor just as she was making known her skepticism about the real plot and plotters behind JFK’s assassination, Ms. Kilgallen evidently believed the Mafia connection rumors to Oswald and Ruby and was about to publish her findings.
And now, Alexis is out to continue Dorothy’s investigation and find the true story of what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963 (and to Dorothy on November 8, 1965). And she is not believing the report that Dorothy died of accidental alcohol and drug overdose. “Accidental is another way of saying no one’s proven yet if it was murder,” she tells her friends.
From these clues alone, it should be obvious that we have the ingredients for a juicy and melodramatic thriller; and that is just what the world premiere of Allison Page’s Kilgallen Jones truly is, now in its initial staging at Exit Theatre. But this is a nail-biter that first starts mildly and with lots of college cohort chuckles. It is also one where the illustrious “petite, mousey brunette with seemingly no chin” (i.e., Ms. Kilgallen) resurrects in full life to provide commentary, comical relief, and eventually coaching for would-be sleuth, Alexis. The resulting summation an intriguing mixture of fiction based on some fact, mystery interlaced with fantasy, and strange noises in the middle of the night bumping up against the soundtracks of B-rated shows of cable-TV crime.
Alexis Jones is nothing if not intense and determined and is actually taking community college seriously – even if her childhood chums, Rae and Gordo, are content in breezing through easy classes while concentrating on the upcoming Homecoming and eating Chalupas from Taco Bell. Sarah Brazier is excellent in a role that calls on her first to engage in silly, collegiate chitchat in her nasally, half-interested manner and later to become the deeper-resonating, Pod-broadcasting voice of an investigative reporter. As she digs further into the life and times of Dorothy Kilgallen (a journalist self-described as “revered, respected, and sometimes reviled”), Alexis comes to believe that the Hollywood/Broadway gossip source also truly knew from her own research and an interview with Jack Ruby (Lee Harvey Oswald’s too-convenient assassinator) the true story behind Kennedy’s demise.
Her evidence grows on a cork board where pictures of the key players (including Ms. Kilgallen, Kennedy, Ruby, etc.), articles, and information she is now receiving from helpful listeners of her podcast are all hung and connected by yarn. Piecing together the clues day by day and foregoing any other semblance of the normal life of a college kid (like going to class), Ms. Brazier slowly goes from Jekyll into Hyde as her entire demeanor transforms. With sleep-deprived eyes, caffeine-induced nerves, and an entire being that begins to look and act like a stalked victim, Alexis is sure she is about to discover what Ms. Kilgallen already knew the night she died.
The stage setting designed meticulously in detail by Mary Naughton divides into two distinct halves. On one side is a brick-walled basement with hand-me-down furniture; IKEA desk with IMac and forgotten coffee cups; and a family’s tossed boxes of old clothes, books, and other now-forgotten clutter. Opposite is the memento-filled office/parlor of a lady who likes red and orange – the hues of everything from an old typewriter, a table radio, the telephone, and roses on a back table. Figured wallpaper engulfs a window with lace curtains; a Tiffany lamp lights the desk; and a well-stocked, small bar is ready for martini-making.
And into this latter setting sachets a well-preserved but older woman with hair and cocktail dress matching the red in her décor and a necklace of diamonds dripping toward her breasts from her tiny neck. Dorothy Kilgallen intently and distinctly talks directly to us, the unseen audience, commenting her reactions to the radio’s broadcast as well as her own beliefs about a favorite subject: murder. Marie O’Donnell waltzes about, works at her desk, and -- as time progresses -- listens and watches with increasing interest and intensity the deliberations of young Alexis.
In the mind and dreams of Alexis, the woman who died in 1965 is once again alive and now her own teacher. “If finding truth were simple, everyone would do it ... You’ll learn my dear,” the elder sleuth gently but firmly advises the younger. More and more Alexis in her mind’s arena seeks the help of Dorothy, but she is bluntly told, “Time keeps secrets, Alexis ... I can’t do all the work for you.” The interactions between the real Alexis and the dream Dorothy become ever-more acute in tone and urgency as Alexis gets closer to what she believes is the truth escaping the rest of the world for over fifty years. The skilled, acting prowess of both Ms. O’Donnell and Ms. Brazier is tested and proven.
Coming in and out of the investigation’s flow are Rae and Gordo, neither who can understand what has overcome their friend and each becoming both more worried and also more upset of being ignored. Lauren Garcia has a bit of Valley Girl built into her moves and vocal deliveries as Rae and often talks as much with her wide, darting eyes as she does with her snappy, vocal chords. George Coker’s Gordo is a laid-back, happy soul who speaks in mostly short, staccato phrases (some of which are unfortunately missed by the audience due to speed and volume of delivery). The two become much more embroiled than they ever meant to be in the teeming mystery that Alexis has stirred up, leading them to have some thrills and spills unexpected and unwanted.
Ellery Schaar directs the duo-time-period, part-real/part-dream-world play with sometimes tongue-in-cheek and with sometimes a nod to Alfred Hitchcock. The lighting design of Beth Cockrell adds to the increasing tension of whodunit and who-is-about-to-do-it as does the underlying music, bumps, and creaks full of mystery by sound designer Gregory Scharpen. Stephanie Dittbern has not only created an outfit for Dorothy that is right out of Saturday Evening Post, she has put the younger set into today’s typical hang-out wear of twenty-somethings.
Allison Page’s new script is inventive, fun, and full of historical tidbits. She also is able to cause audience progressively to lean forward in anticipation of what will happen next. There are some tangential elements that frankly distract (e.g., Alexis’s relationship with a mother who never answers her calls); and once the big ‘reveal’ happens, the script and action slows a bit too much before ending. But this is a world premiere; and adjustments are inevitable in pace, content, and sequence as more is learned.
In the meantime, Kilgallen Jones is a time-trip worth taking as Exit Theatre presents a production that will bring both chuckles and some gasps.
Rating: 3 E
Kilgallen Jones continues through March 25 at Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.theexit.org.