“Bette Davis Eyes,” the 1981 Kim Carnes hit, was the perfect accompaniment to the bows and applause after Theatre Three’s opening-night performance of “Me and Jezebel.”
Marci Bing, as the two-time Oscar-winning actress, brings those daunting eyes back to life, peering out from behind picture-window spectacles as she alternately rebukes and rewards — keeping us wondering whether Davis is being genuine or just using her famous acting chops to get her way.
The 1992 play is based on the true story of a Hollywood legend invited for dinner who takes up residence for 32 days. Davis’ extended stay gave the author, Elizabeth Fuller, plenty of material. Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni as Fuller also voices the men in the playwright’s life, her husband and 4-year-old son — most endearingly young Christopher, through whom she delivers a line so disarming we’d like to believe it was really spoken by the child and not written by his mother.
In 1985, Davis was hiding in Westport, Connecticut, during a New York City hotel strike that coincided with the release of her daughter’s book, “My Mother’s Keeper,” depicting her as a lighter version of rival Joan (“Mommie Dearest”) Crawford. Each day is enumerated — especially by Liz’s impatient husband. But Liz can’t bring herself to evict her guest. Instead, she finds things to do together — such as taking Christopher to McDonald’s. When he throws a tantrum over a kids-meal prize, Bette draws from movie history to show why disappointment can be a gift. When Vivien Leigh beat her out for the Scarlett O’Hara part in “Gone With the Wind,” Davis got the title role in “Jezebel” as consolation. That was her second Oscar.
Bing’s Davis seems most vulnerable when passers-by don’t recognize her or think she had died. (She was 77 and died four years later.)
To my knowledge, this is the first Long Island “Jezebel” played by a woman. Impersonating Bette Davis can be effective in drag. But director Bradlee Bing, Theatre Three co-founder and Marci’s husband, finds greater authenticity with an actress experienced in playing legends. (Bing played Maria Callas in “Master Class” in 2014.)
Meanwhile, a language warning: Davis never censors herself. Also, she smokes constantly (herbal cigarettes).
Ronald Green III dresses Bing in diva-appropriate leisurewear, while set designer Randall Parsons’ centered bookcase anchors the guest abode Davis describes as “a dump.”
She’s kidding. We think.