The two-women production at the Actors’ Warehouse describes what happened when the aging film star dropped in on a Connecticut family and made herself right at home.
Who wouldn’t want to meet a Hollywood movie star and have her drop by for dinner?
But what would happen if that same celebrity came back the next day in a stretch limo loaded with a steamer trunk and announced she was staying for a while?
That’s what actually happened to writer Elizabeth Fuller in 1985 when acting legend Bette Davis found herself “in a real bind” due to a hotel strike in New York City. The actress invited herself to “stay for a night, possibly two” but ended up becoming part of the Fuller household for much longer.
Fuller shared the story in her tell-all book, “Me and Jezebel: When Bette Davis Came to Dinner–and Stayed.” On Friday night at 8, the Actors’ Warehouse brings the amusing story to the stage when it presents Me & Jezebel at the theater’s new location, 619 NE 1st St.
The production continues through July 23 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 and on Sunday afternoons at 3. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students, seniors, military and veterans).
In the AW production, Jan Cohen channels Bette Davis, from the actress’s gravelly voice and arching eyebrows to the way she lit and held her ubiquitous cigarette. Kristin Mercer plays the starstruck Fuller, who narrates the story while carrying on real-time conversations with her matinee idol in her suburban living room.
“A firm mattress is always a treat,” Davis informs Fuller with just the right emphasis to guarantee results.
Fuller wants to be the proverbial hostess with the mostest. She’s already agreed to some ground rules, such as not mentioning the name of Joan Crawford, Davis’s arch-rival, or the scandalous book, “My Mother’s Keeper,” written by Davis’s estranged daughter.
“In 15 days, I had practically become Bette Davis’ best friend,” Fuller swoons at one point.
Not until Davis starts stepping — okay, stomping — on some toes with her demands and driving Fuller’s husband to Maalox does Liz go from Martha Stewart wholesome to “Real Housewife” homicidal.
“The great part of the story is that it’s all true,” said Deborah Dickey, who is directing the play. “It’s all based on real events.”
Dickey, who directed the two-man The Odd Couple last year at the AW, suggested the two-women play to the theater’s artistic director, Steven H. Butler (who happened to star as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple). He knew Dickey would pull it off. And she has.
“I’m a big Bette Davis fan,” Dickey said. “I used to watch her old movies after school. My grandmother [Bessie] was from New England and she reminded me of Bette Davis. She was very frank and didn’t mince words, and she had a great sense of humor.”
Although Davis didn’t fancy herself as a comedian, her speech pattern, mannerisms and off-screen persona made her an easy star to mimic.
“She believed that her films should be bigger than life, and she certainly was,” Dickey said.
Cohen, who recently played the cantankerous Mrs. Boyle in The Mousetrap at the Gainesville Community Playhouse, couldn’t resist auditioning for the Bette Davis role.
“I’ve never portrayed Bette Davis before,” she said. “I tried out because I thought she was a fun, gutsy lady. No matter what went wrong with her life, she just kept going.”
To prepare for their roles and to study Davis, Cohen and Mercer watched a number of old Davis movies after rehearsals. Among their favorites were Of Human Bondage, All About Eve and Jezebel.
Mercer said that she and Cohen are longtime friends who have performed together 11 times in local theater productions. However, Me & Jezebel is their first two-women production.
“There are very few people I would rather do a two-women show with than Jan,” Mercer said. “We have trust, friendship and history.”
Mercer has been doing theater in Gainesville since 1990. She has performed numerous roles at the GCP since 1995, most recently as Amanda in last year’s Turning Tables. With Me & Jezebel, she is making her Actors’ Warehouse debut.
As Liz, Mercer plays the foil to Davis’s character, whether they are having lunch at Pierre’s, sitting on the beach, taking the Fuller’s 4-year-old son to McDonald’s or picking raspberries.
The biggest laughs come when Cohen’s Davis throws in a one-liner out of left field. “Bogart was a lousy lay!” she blurts out in one scene.
“It’s a really a great character piece,” Mercer said. “And Bette Davis is quite a character.”
— Noel Leroux
Me & Jezebel
at the Actors’ Warehouse
619 NE 1st St.
Gainesville, FL 32619
Performances: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 p.m., Sundays @ 3 p.m. through July 23.
Tickets: $20 general admission; $15 students and seniors.
For further info, visit the Actors’ Warehouse website.