The times seem just right for HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr. In this one-woman biographical show Heather Massie, a one-time wannabe astronaut, merges her interest in science with her capacious skill and talent to portray Hedy Lamarr, who was not only a star of Hollywood’s golden age and considered the most beautiful woman in the world but an engineer who invented a technology used in electronic devices to the present day.
With the popularity of the movie Hidden Figures, about the pioneering women who played early key roles in NASA’s space program, and a new documentary about Lamarr now screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, the stars seem aligned for a new appreciation of women’s contributions to science. Massie’s resurrected Lamarr gratefully addresses an audience she says is finally asking “the right questions” – not about her legendary beauty, her many marriages, the sex and nudity in her controversial 1933 film Ecstasy, or her post-career arrests for shoplifting, but about her mind.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria in 1914 to Jewish parents (though not raised Jewish – her mother had converted to Catholicism), the future Hedy Lamarr developed an interest in science and engineering with her father’s encouragement. Massie vividly portrays her subject from childhood through the stages of her career, beginning as an ambitious script girl and on into maturity. She gives us a wide assortment of other characters as well – parents, husbands, Louis B. Mayer, even fellow movie stars. Her Hedy is both convincingly real and larger than life. Well before she gets to the late stage at which she invented some of the plastic surgery procedures she underwent to try to preserve her storied loveliness, she has us thoroughly swept up.
Our magically conjured Hedy speaks of the Electronic Frontier Foundation honoring her in 1997 – a bit late, she points out drily, but at least she lived that long, hanging on until 2000. She points to our mobile phones as benefiting from radio frequency hopping, the technique she invented with George Antheil. It may be hyperbole to claim, as the script does, that had the United States Navy been more receptive the Second World War could have been shortened and countless lives saved. There’s no doubt that she used her celebrity to sell war bonds, with smashing success.
The magic of the show, of course, isn’t the jam-foiling effect of frequency hopping, it’s Massie’s richly realized conjuring of Lamarr through accent, attitude, dress and wig. She makes it entirely believable that Lamarr was someone “people just can’t seem to let…be human,” whose beauty shuts off any consideration of the intelligence behind the eyes. Onstage, Massie makes it easy to look past the dissimilarity of facial features. She gives us what feels like the spirit of Hedy Lamarr, speaking to us from a plane outside time.
Reproductions of classic black-and-white movie poses, featuring Massie and projected on a screen prior to her entrance, have a gimmicky and rather jarring effect, though. Stills evoking Hollywood’s golden age but not featuring either Massie or Lamarr might be more effective at setting the mood and milieu.
Aside from that, the show’s technical and creative aspects merged smoothly; this one-time advance performance, attended by members of Lamarr’s family, wasn’t shaky in the slightest. While tweaking may continue in the coming weeks, HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr appears ready for its upcoming New York City run of six performances from June 18-30 at the 2017 Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. More information, and scheduling for performances in other cities, is available at the HEDY! website.