Luke Yankee, son of the incomparable Eileen Heckart, knows the cliché "there's no business like show business" is true: His legacy from his mother was a lifetime of meeting celebrities who were part of her circle of friends and listening to her stories. Judging by the ones he shares with the audience, his growing-up years rival those of Patrick Dennis' tales of his Auntie Mame.
Heckart worked with them all—Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis—and though a few of their stories are not entirely flattering, Yankee tells them with much humor and goodwill. He accompanies his narratives with slides and videos. A seven-minute retrospective created from his mother's memorabilia paints a warm picture of a woman who successfully combined career and family. He hastens to add that where they lived in Connecticut, she was just Mrs. Yankee. However, the flair with which she attacked the rearing of her children adds to the appeal of his stories. There are no Mommie Dearest episodes in his repertoire. He tells of Ethel Merman teaching him how to make a great martini and visiting his room to see his puppet collection. He claims Paul Newman gave him pointers on how to upstage his classmates in school plays.
Director John Sgueglia keeps the tone casual. With charming mimicry, actor Yankee re-creates several of the exchanges between his mother and the other divas. With songs and a boyish affection shining through his anecdotes, he helps us see this award-winning actress as both glamorous and down-to-earth. In a touching conclusion to the theatrical side of the show, he chronicles her last days before her death from cancer. Then the lights go up, and he solicits questions from the audience about celebrities whose names are listed in the program.
All in all, it is 90 minutes of good old-fashioned dishing, done with a great deal of affection and sentiment. It appears Yankee inherited the storytelling gene from his mother, and this engaging production preserves her personal and professional history.
Presented by and at Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. (Also Sun. 2 p.m. Aug. 6-20.) Jul. 22-Aug. 26. (562) 494-1014. www.lbph.com.