HOW “WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” HAPPENED, Hell in a Handbag Productions, at Theatre Building Chicago. Trying to camp up the 1962 film classic would be an exercise in futility–wisely, playwright David Cerda focuses on a fanciful behind-the-scenes saga of titanic egos battling for the title of greatest Hollywood has-been. But given the material’s explosive potential–imagine what Charles Ludlam might have done with it–Cerda comes up nearly dry. The occasional moment of grotesque parody–Bette Davis’s head replaces the infamous rat on Joan Crawford’s dinner plate–can’t compensate for the near complete lack of story: instead of escalating stakes we get a series of petty skirmishes interspersed with dead-end subplots. Cerda can’t seem to decide whether he’s writing a vicious spoof or a poignant comedy, so much of the humor falls flat.
Director Jay Paul Skelton creates handsome stage pictures, and an enormous cast of bit players adds some nuanced silliness. But the pace is deadly slow, exacerbated by the cast’s struggles throughout the show’s two and a half hours to remember their lines. As Crawford, Cerda gives a shaky, generic diva performance. But Steve Hickson is spot-on as Davis, a frumpy heap of disdain and insecurity padding around in baby-doll dresses and wearing a permanent scowl, a monstrous creation who somehow reveals genuine vulnerability.