Thursday, June 6, 2013

Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty

 Meeting a friend for tea is usually a pleasant get-together, a chance to spend a little time in a comfortable setting for a some chatting and often a bit of soul-baring. That is the experience actress Elaine Bromka creates in her intimate one-woman performance of Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty, which she wrote with playwright Eric H. Weinberger. Under the direction of Byam Stevens, the three former First Ladies share their stories and, even more effectively, their feelings in this engaging 80-minute show at The 30th Street Theatre.

Set in a parlor of the While House in 1968, 1974 and 1976, each Lady spends just enough time with us to draw us into her world and her reactions to it without going on too long. This impressed me. These kinds of plays where the character addresses the audience about her or his life can get tedious to the point where I feel like screaming, “Get over yourself.” I felt that last season with the popular one-woman Broadway play Ann, about the late governor Ann Richards. In Tea for Three, each Lady left me feeling sorry to see her go.

The clever device that links the three segments is that each woman, after reminiscing about her husband’s nearly completed administration, is preparing to greet her successor with tea and a While House tour. Lady Bird heads out of the parlor to greet Pat, Pat to meet Betty and Betty to meet the unseen Rosalynn. In between, the lights come up a bit for some brief set adjustments but no intermissions interrupt the flow. (Set coordinator Matt Kapriellian created a simple room with a desk in the background and coffee table and chair at front so the Ladies’ stories are the real focus.)

I also was grateful that Bromka didn’t try to imitate the women’s voices, rather she transforms herself swiftly from one to the other through a change of wig and dress. (Costume design by Patricia Carucci, Bunny Mateosian and Robert E. McLaughlin, who also designed the wigs.) She’ll use an appropriate drawl or speech pattern, but no mimicry.

Tea with Lady Bird is tea with a southern gentlewoman who tells her daughters the idea of a woman having a life of her own is for their generation, not hers. Making Lyndon happy is her goal in life. But this was not easy as their time in the White House was marred by rising protests against the Viet Nam war, and she shares the anguish she and the president felt. Publicly they had to carry on as chants of Hey, L.B.J., how many boys did you kill today followed them. But she lets us know that privately her husband was so anguished he used to go downstairs at night to check on the latest causality counts -- for a war he inherited, she makes a point of telling us. She is a staunch defender of her husband throughout. But like a proper southern gentlewoman, she does not linger in complaint, pointing out the positive changes she has been able to make, such as highway beautification.

Next, having tea with Pat (photo by Ron Marotta) was the most interesting because she is the most complex character. We see the spirit she had that she suppressed before the public. Her early life growing up in a small California town was marked by economic hardship and a heavy domestic load cooking and caring for her father and brothers. She dreamed of travel and an acting career and those dreams light her face as she talks. But an even deeper passion -- anger -- takes over when she talks about the 1960 election she believes the Kennedy campaign stole from her husband through voter fraud and when she discusses Watergate. She is like an animal trapped in a cage when she describes how that unfolding scandal kept her inside, pacing the room -- she can tell you how many rotations it takes to make a mile -- or slipping out at night with daughter Julie to the worst parts of town where no one was out so she could walk and walk, Secret Service agents following, until they could walk no more from exhaustion. I really felt I had been let into a private world in this segment and gotten close to the real character.

Betty was my least favorite portrayal, although she was my favorite of those three First Ladies. I had fun with her, but she was a little too much of the good time gal, giddy from painkillers and booze, while I would have preferred more depth, such as when she discussed how she was able to use her breast cancer, discovered only one month after her husband assumed the presidency, to encourage women to be screened. She maintained rather a whoopee attitude throughout, rather than displaying more of a range of emotions. Having had such a great time during her husband’s term, she is not the least bit ready to leave the White House. She illustrates this by mentioning that when she was having her First Ladies’ tea and tour after Nixon resigned, Pat had pointed to a red carpet and told Betty she’d get sick of them. I never did, Betty tells us with glee. She departs to welcome Rosalynn, the wife of the man who has deprived her of four more years of excitement in the White House, playfully speculating on whether she could offer Rosalynn a drink instead of tea.

Bromka has been performing Tea for Three since 2005. It was inspired by her appearance opposite Rich Little in The Presidents, which she performed across the country and on PBS.  Called upon to impersonate eight First Ladies, she spent months poring over videotapes of the women. Studying nuances of their body language and speech patterns to explore psychologically why they moved and spoke as they did, she became more and more drawn in by their personalities.

“These were women of intelligence and grit who suddenly found themselves in a fishbowl,” Bromka has said. “I realized I wanted to tell the story from their point of view. And I wanted to explode myths. Pat was called ‘Plastic Pat’ in the press, for example, because she was always smiling. Look more closely at her eyes, though. There’s nothing plastic about her. You see the eyes of a private, watchful survivor.”

This Amas Musical Theatre production of Tea For Three will run through June 29. For information, visit

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