Dorothy Parker, celebrated for her razor-sharp wit, her incisive cultural criticism, and her charter membership at the Algonquin Round Table, also had a more vulnerable side, as anyone who’s read her poetry is likely to know: one of her most well-known poems, “Resumé,” comprises a virtual laundry list of suicide methods. Excuse My Dust, written and performed by Chicago actress Jennifer Engstrom, focuses squarely on that side, determined to show the fragility behind Parker’s polish.
While Engstrom is nominally playing not Parker but characters from five of her short stories (“A Telephone Call,” “Just a Little One,” “Sentiment,” “The Waltz,” and “The Garter”) interspersed with short poems, the setup blurs the distance between Parker’s fictional creations and herself. The show is a solo piece, and one where all the characters are very much cut from the same mold. Their circumstances differ, to be sure, but each woman mingles cynic with ingenue; all five stories definitely draw from a single strain of Parker’s work (the travails of the single woman). Engstrom doesn’t seem to be portraying distinctly different figures in each piece; a swap of a single costume element is the only real clue that we’re not seeing a series of ongoing adventures in the life of one particularly unlucky seeker-after-love. Some of them retain more optimism and more bravado than others, but Engstrom’s diction and performance style remain much the same for all.
Director Darren Lee Cole’s staging, which anchors each story at a different physical location within the intimate bar space, The Huron Club, downstairs at SoHo Playhouse, helps to separate the segments. But more work building the characters, giving them some breadth, would have greatly benefited the piece.
It’s true that certain of Parker’s stories lend themselves to dramatic adaptation by being essentially interior monologues in the first place, and the piece basically comprises sections of the five stories, pared down but quoted verbatim, and sometimes edited with interspersing segments. The monologue-styled stories do tend to fall into the most familiar category of her work: acerbically witty, concerned with romantic and social disappointment, observing a particular social scene. But using only this material seems like taking the easy way out, when there’s so much more to draw from: her incisive and often unexpectedly generous theater and book criticism; her political activism (her FBI file ran more than nine hundred pages); her Academy Award-nominated screenwriting career; her plain-spoken letters; and of course a broader array of short stories that were more narratively driven.
Excuse My Dust leaves one with a partial, sometimes unflattering, and flat portrait of Parker and her work. The show makes something maudlin out of her, and that feels like a wasted opportunity.