Currently showing at One Thirty Productions is Tea for Three a delightful one-woman show with monologues by three first ladies, appearing in the order of their husband’s presidencies. First is Lady Bird Johnson, followed by Pat Nixon, and then Betty Ford. As you might expect, each has her own distinctive personality. Ladybird is demure and gracious, Pat is subdued but warm, Betty is boisterous and somewhat eccentric. There is no intermission, though there are brief pauses for costume and set changes. Playwrights Elaine Bromka and Eric H. Weinberger set the plot consecutively, Nixon followed LBJ and Ford replaced Nixon, after his resignation. There is natural overlap, and while each “wife” has her individual demeanor, all are frank, confiding, and forthcoming. Weinberger and Bromka capitalize on the salient qualities that make each of them so charming.
Lady Bird talks about Lyndon inheriting the Vietnam War, Pat discusses the injustice of the press towards Richard, and Betty, what it is was like for Gerald to supplant a President forced to move on. What makes Tea for Three so effective though, is the small details. Lady Bird describing Lyndon’s courtship, his bravado, his insensitivity, his jug ears. We are surprised to discover (or maybe not) that marital devotion does not require blinders or spin. When Pat Nixon does a fine imitation of Dick Nixon, or explains how she deals with evenings alone, these are such surprising, genuinely moving moments that invite us into her actual life experience. Betty Ford is positively shameless, recounting her naked antics as a kid, laughing without holding back. She sways in her cheery, vibrant robe, enjoying a cocktail, while we read between the lines, and thoroughly enjoy her candor.
Marty Van Kleeck is nothing less than astonishing in this touching, authentic, demanding performance. She must shift gears three times, adopting the mannerisms and quirks (not to mention dialects) of three famous, original ladies. Each with their own lovable flaws and strengths. In the time it takes for two fetching young gentlemen in black suits to switch out the portraits and props, Ms. Van Kleeck undergoes a transformation, submerging herself entirely in each character. She brings nuance, meticulous focus and joie de vivre to Lady Bird, Pat and Betty, seemingly without effort. At one point she stepped out of character to make sure an audience member was safe and secure. Then, just as seamlessly, she slipped back in. Not surprising when you consider Ms. Van Kleeck’s abundant skill, dedication and humanity. Treat yourself before Tea for Three closes and let her overwhelm you.