Tracie Bennett dominates the stage in End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s play about the final days of Judy Garland. Her performance is wonderfully athletic—she bounds across the stage, striking poses, belting out songs, smoking cigarettes, laughing uproariously one minute and bawling uncontrollably the next. She is not just playing Garland—she is playing Garland playing GARLAND. She is the superstar who is constantly performing, not only for her fans, but for her friends and her fiancé as well. Even in moments of anger, in moments of drunken despair, her diction is perfectly theatrical, as when she tells her hubby Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), each syllable carefully enunciated, “Oh, suck—my—dick.”
There is more than a bit of Sunset Blvd. to this play, and not only because Ms. Bennett seems to be channeling Gloria Swanson in her every move. Mickey is twelve years younger than Judy and even if Mr. Quilter ultimately writes him as a villain, feeding Judy pills and booze so she will keep going onstage, we can’t help but feel sorry for him; he is trapped by her narcissism and her intelligence—she knows just how far she can push him before reeling him back with her charm. And she is very charming, a charm Mr. Quilter knows how to use, making End of the Rainbow a funnier play that it would be in other hands. When talking about the grizzliest parts of her life—for example, being fed drugs on the set of The Wizard of Oz—she notes wryly in her husky but singsong voice that she didn’t have to walk down the yellow brick road: “I could have flown.”
Though the play cannot help but give all its great moments to its star, Mr. Pelphrey does a terrific job in the quieter role. We see in the actor Mickey’s love for Judy and also his mounting frustration as he endlessly negotiates with the unreasonable drug addict. Still, there is no doubt an element of the gold digger in him. In a telling moment, Judy apologizes for her behavior and he replies, “I knew what I was buying into”—for him, this engagement is at least partially an investment. Michael Cumpsty, who plays Anthony, a heartbroken gay man and Judy’s longtime pianist, is also quite good; he has a devastating final scene with Judy where he begs her to come live with him in Brighton, to retire to a quiet, uneventful life. But Judy, as much as she has been forced into the spotlight by abusive parents and directors and spouses, still loves the attention—she could never live where she is not recognized by fans.
A great number of critics have accused End of the Rainbow of exploiting an old, broken-down star, of mining her life for its most humiliating moments. Nonsense. Judy Garland is dead and her life belongs in the public domain. End of the Rainbow is not rehashed gossip, as some would have you believe (few names are actually dropped), but the portrait of an actress who has been spit out of Hollywood, a woman who has been told that her life’s meaning is determined by celebrity—and as a conflicted figure, she both detests and desires the meaningless pleasures that this entails: adoring fans, standing ovations, and a bigger hotel room. It doesn’t even matter that it’s about Judy Garland and not, say, Marilyn Monroe. She only provides the specificity that gives End of the Rainbow its universality. Which is not to say it is a perfect play—there are a few too many musical numbers, for example—but nonetheless Mr. Quilter, director Terry Johnson, and their cast can be proud of producing a fine Hollywood drama.
End of the Rainbow runs through August 19th at the Belasco Theatre. 111 W. 44th Street New York, NY.