Aiming in the vicinity of an All About Eve, and dropping names like Tallulah and Selznick, All Save One (★★) paints a vivid mid-century backdrop for the story of closeted writer Sims Glendenning and his fractious but loving inner circle. Set in Hollywood in 1950, D.C.-area playwright Greg Jones Ellis’s comedy runs on tart dialogue and showbiz-related situations that easily evoke the spirit of an urbane studio film of the era.
Yet only rarely does Sims, the Bette Davis of this piece, evince the magnetism that might so captivate the audience of friends, lovers, and pests buzzing about him. Portrayed by Bill Largess, Sims is witty and testy, and a tad too self-regarding.
Largess conveys the heft of the famous English writer, settled down for a spell in a California beach house, but Sims’ inner chill never lifts. He doesn’t seem much penetrated by the feelings of devotion hurled like darts in his direction by his long-suffering secretary, Basil (R. Scott Williams), who is secretly his loving companion.
Williams’ performance allows affecting glimpses of warmth beneath the brittle comebacks and bons mots. His adoration of Sims feels like a torch he’s carried too long to put down now, even if Sims stays distracted with young trade, like the unseen handsome houseguest howling on the beach behind the house.
Sims also is very publicly married to famous actress Claire, played with scene-stealing gusto by Laura Giannarelli. Claire has concealed some of her own secrets by acting as beard, but now she’s fallen for a movie producer, John (Lawrence Redmond), who’s wrapped up in the HUAC hearings. She craves more truth in her life, and Giannarelli makes that feeling matter.
The narrative takes on too much at once, adding subplots about blackmail and a dim priest, while keeping the group bound to the stale confines of Sims’ sitting room. And, despite a well-delivered speech by Basil on the compromises of leading a closeted life, the play’s take on the parallel lives of different kinds of closeted folks feels done. Still, a more connected Sims might compensate for that, if some of the character’s willful blindness were somehow made alluring, instead of just all-encompassing.
All Save One runs through December 9, at the Washington Stage Guild, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Tickets are $25 to $60. Call 240-582-0050, or visit stageguild.org.