Like nails on a blackboard, Off the Wall mounts Baby Jane!

Jeremy Welter and Mark Hagen as Baby Jane and Blanche.

Milking the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, two of greatest actors of their time, rose to a fevered pitch with the release of the 1962 movie “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.”

It was a frantic and suspense-filled romp through the life of Baby Jane Hudson, from her life as a child star on the Orpheum Circuit, to her fall from grace into a harridan who imprisons her own crippled sister, Blanche, in a mausoleum of a home.

The movie was high camp and met with wonderful critical acclaim and a slew of Academy Award nominations.

Proving that he knows a good story when he sees it and that he knows how to take a brittle screech and turn it into a piercing wail, Dale Gutzman took the story and turned it into a two-act play that opened its second run at his Off the Wall Theatre this week.

If nothing else, Mr. Gutzman understands when it’s okay to let loose the reins and let his horse gallop untethered across the plain.

The conceit of this production, which had its debut in 2011, is that the roles of Baby Jane and Blanche are played by men, Mark Hagen and Jeremy Welter. In addition, the two men alternate roles and Mr. Welter played Jane to Mr. Hagen’s Blanche on opening night.

If pressed as to why stage this thing, Mr. Gutzman may well replay, “just for fun.” That is also going to be what people are saying when they walk out of the black box theater on Wells St.

Here’s the story.

Baby Jane is a star in the world of touring child stars who are cute, sing, dance and make money. Kayla Salter does a nice turn as the young Baby Jane ,trilling “I wrote a Letter to Daddy,” perhaps the most obnoxious song about potential incest you will ever hear.

Once we have established her cuteness and brattiness the scene shifts forward to a time when the sisters have become adults.

Baby Jane is a drunk with a heart of coal who keeps her sister, confined to a wheelchair, a virtual prisoner. Blanche was injured in an automobile crash, allegedly a plot by Jane to kill her sister, who is now the most popular star in the family.

Ah, you say, murder is afoot.

And it is, but not before there is so much gore and glory to be spread through both the big and little things that Mr. Gutzman is so adept at directing his actors to consider.

Mr. Welter looks like Bette Davis, with white makeup covering his blonde ringlet surrounded face, broken only by the garish slashes of bright red lipstick. Dressed first in a Mumu and then a lace dress with black heels, he is the embodiment of every man’s nightmare of a date.

Mr. Hagen is confined to his wheelchair with a severe black wig and crimson gown.

Jane’s cruelty to her sister knows no bounds. She bakes Blanche’s pet parakeet and serves it to her sister for lunch. Dinner is a rat, captured in the basement of their home. She banishes the woman who cleans and helps to care for Blanche.

The brightest of the comedy in this production is physical and much of it belongs to Blanche.

At one point in the first act she attempts to type a letter of plea to be dropped out a window. The typewriter is on one table, but paper is on another. Watching her wheelchair to get paper, put it in her mouth, and wheel back, sets off a string of back and forth that had the audience roaring in delight. She needs an address, a phone number, a spelling. Each one requires a herculean effort.

But it’s not just the broad physical comedy that marks a Gutzman production. While wheeling back to find a dictionary to see how to spell “immediately,” she pages through it, “ilk,” she says, then “ill” then “impeach, oh I’ve gone too far.” When she said ‘impeach” this political aware crowd chuckled with approval.

When Blanche tried to get to the downstairs (and downstage) phone to call for help, the tortured nature of her 10-minute journey was propelled with gales of laughter with each hurdle passed and faced.

Once Blanche makes it to the phone and calls for help, she is interrupted by Jane, who drags her behind a couch and stomps, kicks, hits and jumps on her sister. Each attack is accompanied by a reflexive leap of Blanche’s legs and, again, it’s the kind of physical comedy that produces peals of laughter.

Mr. Gutzman has a coterie of actors who consistently appear in his productions. They are all earnest players, some more able than others. His skill as a director – and producer – is to get everything he can out of the actors he has. The stars are stars and the others are there for support of the story.

Mr. Gutzman also knows, like Hamlet, that above all else, “the play’s the thing.”

“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” runs through August 27 and information on show times and tickets is available at http://www.offthewalltheatre.com

About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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