THEATER REVIEW: “W.C. Fields By Himself!” is a work in progress

It’s difficult to make a sympathetic character out of a man who made his living as a misogynist, child-hating, drunken comic who was said to fire BB pellets at fans walking up the driveway to his Los Angeles home.

That was W.C. Fields (aka William Claude Dukenfield), also a much-admired (even beloved) film comic, whose road to Hollywood started with juggling at age 15, followed by vaudeville and music halls.

He didn’t become a film star until 1933, when he was 53. His best-known film is probably “My Little Chickadee,” which co-starred Mae West. His taste for alcohol robbed him of a longer career.

Dale Morris, former proprietor of 6th & Penn (later Compass) Theatre, has written and stars in “W.C. Fields By Himself.” He is developing the show with hopes of a national tour. It plays here through Sept. 30 at downtown’s Tentth Avenue Theatre.

The show opens with a set of too-small video projections (mostly Fields comedy clips) projected on a black curtain. These would set the scene better were it not for two bright white lights that shine in the audience’s eyes, making viewing problematic.

Fields was at his best bouncing one-liners off another actor. Here, we see him in the twilight of his career, more loner than antagonist, and it doesn’t work as well. His best scenes are with Fred Harlow or Eva Barnes, who play an assortment of roles such as Fields’ daughter-in-law Ruthie, theater producer Mr. Miller and stage manager Glenda.

The setup is this: Fields has been hired for a “nothing” role in a film; he is in an abandoned theater readying himself for the cameo. He is sober, but struggles with delirium tremens, and now he hears voices – some of them live and onsite, others phantoms from the past. He eventually succumbs to the flask he’s stashed in a pocket.

Morris has the looks, and has assembled the facts about as well as one could, but lacking a sounding board for the comic lines pushes this show more often out of theater and into the realm of an educational program. But it comes alive in sections like the duet between Fields and Harlow’s Fatty Arbuckle on the old George M. Cohan song-and-dance number “Harrigan.”

That Fields was not really either misogynist or a child-hater is pointed out, but I must confess my bias against anyone who uses these not-funny characteristics as if they were funny.

“W.C. Fields By Himself!” needs more work, but since Fields’ films still make the TV viewing circuit, it’s possible that this show could have legs.

The details

"W.C. Fields By Himself!" plays through Sept. 30 at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., downtown.

Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm.

For tickets, visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.

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