Lucille Ball rightfully snatched her Queen of Comedy title, while starring as the determined, scheming redhead in I Love Lucy. The combination of Lucy’s indefatigable spirit, gumption and a pinch of well-intentioned mischief entranced her viewers, who rooted for her silly plots to play out well. But even if Lucy’s plans didn’t actually go to plan, the audience knew she would bounce back with another zany idea in the next episode. In contrast, the play I Loved Lucy portrays the vulnerable, human side of actress and comedian Lucille Ball.
I Loved Lucy begins with Ball’s second marriage to comedian Gary Morton, which lassoes her into Lee Tannen’s family. Upon the discovery, we share star-struck Lee’s giddiness and anxiety as he prepares to meet the legendary actress. At first, Sandra Dickinson’s booming gravelly voice and uproarious laugh seem a little too harsh for Ball, but she delivers a believable, nuanced performance throughout. Dickinson gels with Matthew Scott as Lee, while they casually play backgammon and rambunctiously dance around tidbits of old Hollywood gossip. As the show continues, Dickinson’s affected mannerisms become more convincing and even endearing.
Some critics felt that Lucy and her extraordinary achievements are buried under the filter of Tannen’s perceptions and the focus on his relationship with the star. But I do not feel the show was self-indulgent and rather appreciate that playwright Lee Tannen stuck with his unique perspective. The audience treads alongside Tannen as he timidly befriends the public icon and continuously flies between the east and west coast to keep her company over tequila-based slushies. We feel his great responsibility for Lucy’s happiness as she wheedles him into staying with her for just another week.
We see Ball as a mercurial woman, at times able to roll with the punches, yet struggling to keep her loneliness and self-criticisms at bay. During one moment, Lucy’s charisma and stardom shrug off a parallel parking accident; but during other instances she overreacts by lashing out at Lee and subsequently retreating. It is sad to see how disheartened Lucy becomes when she acknowledges that she cannot remain exactly as she was immortalized during her golden youth. The devastating side effects of aging are multiplied by Lucy’s stardom and perfectionist nature. Tannen’s script repeatedly peels back Lucy’s public persona to reveal the tumultuous emotions that shaped the last years of her life.
The two-person West End play in London’s Arts Theatre, I Loved Lucy, revisits some of Ball’s most memorable on-screen moments, divulges hilarious anecdotes and shares real snippets from reviews, news segments and a touching insight from former co-star and ex-husband Desi Arnaz. From the opening to the inevitable, fitting close, I Loved Lucy provides an honest, intimate tribute to the courageous and pioneering American comic genius.