Lolita, Broadway's Bomb of the Year, Detonates Edward Albee, Bemuses Donald Sutherland and Illuminates a Lovely Survivor, Blanche Baker

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Lolita opened on Broadway two weeks ago, the critics were almost unanimous on one point: Blanche Baker was an ingenue whose time had come. "Breathtaking," gushed one reviewer of her performance as the nymphet lead in Edward Albee's free-booting overhaul of the Nabokov novel. "Beguiling," another called her imposture of the lascivious 11-year-old who embarks on a transcontinental affair with pedophile Humbert Humbert. Hitherto known mainly as a character actress (Holocaust, Joe Tynan) and as the daughter of Carroll Baker (one of a long line of lesser Hollywood sex goddesses), Blanche, at 24, had come into her own.

That was the good notice. The bad was that her star was rising from the ashes of one of the biggest theatrical bombs of the 1980-81 season—a play the reviewers had gleefully laid into as if public flogging had never been outlawed. "An appalling fiasco," thundered one. "Vulgar and misbegotten," sniped another. Lolita, it seemed, had something to offend everyone. Among those most outraged: several dozen female pickets who gathered outside the theater to announce, in a mimeographed manifesto, that the play "panders to male sexual interest in little girls and treats incest and child abuse as a dirty joke." To nobody's surprise, Lolita was quickly scheduled for euthanasia—just nine days after it opened.

To some observers, the miracle was that Lolita hung in that long. Panned in Boston when it opened there in January, the show still did turn-away business, mainly because the allegedly blue-nosed burghers of that city seemed eager to glimpse a scene of suggested oral sex in the first act. By the second act, though, audiences were fleeing—and Donald Sutherland, who played Humbert, thought he knew why. "The second act is flawed," he said. "It was supposed to have been rethought, and it never was." Playwright Albee returned the compliment, telling reporters that he had scuttled some of his best scenes because they were "too difficult" for Sutherland. "He hasn't been onstage for 17 years," snapped Albee.

Both men reserved some of their bile for the show's producer, Jerry Sherlock, a former fabric broker whose next major artistic venture this year will be a film entitled Me Irving, You Gladys. Plagued by financial problems, Sherlock had to take out newspaper ads last fall to attract new backers. When Sherlock threatened to cut his wrists if the show flopped, Sutherland coyly told an interviewer, "At least something good will come of this."

Ultimately the star and the producer could see eye to eye on only one thing: Blanche Baker. "She's incredibly professional, flexible and imaginative," raves Sutherland. "She's a good actress," Sherlock agrees. Ironically, Baker almost didn't get to play Lolita at all. Until director Frank Dunlop stepped in last fall, Albee and Sherlock were interviewing only preteenage girls for the role. "Over 13 need not apply" read their ad in Variety—and that, Baker believes, would have made the play truly obscene. "The part would be offensive if you had some little girl up there wiggling her ass," says the 5'4", 100-pound actress. "Onstage you really have to have technique and training."

Baker clearly has both, as well as the advantage of theatrical genes. Her father, Jack Garfein, is a concentration camp survivor who worked in movies and went on to become an artistic director at the Harold Clurman Theater in Manhattan. As a child, Blanche, whose parents divorced in 1969, was anything but enamored of Hollywood. "It's dangerous to grow up there," she says. "There were days when I just wished I was in a small town in Oklahoma." She remembers vividly that each Christmas her parents gave Hedda Hopper a bigger present than they did to either Blanche or her younger brother. Fortunately, at the age of 9, she was enrolled at a Swiss boarding school, where, she says, "I had time to be a child." Blanche insists she never became the kind of jaded nymphet that she played in Lolita and, indeed, is offended by today's cult of adolescent sexuality. "I think it's terrible that these kids are on the covers of magazines," she says.

Even two years at Wellesley and a stint with the Yale Repertory Theater did not prepare Blanche to play the sultry Lolita. "People didn't believe it," she says with a laugh, "but I was a virgin when I arrived at Wellesley." Later she turned down a chance to re-create her mother's steamiest role in a remake of the 1956 sensation Baby Doll. "I've always stayed away from sexy parts because I didn't want to be associated with my mother's career," she says. After landing the role of the sensuous preteen, she studied the generational mannerisms of up-and-coming nymphets by loitering outside New York junior high schools for weeks, watching little girls munching pastries and slurping milk shakes.

Far from being devastated by Lolita's crash landing, Blanche is taking its failure with the resilience of youth. "I'm going to go right back to my life," she says, "and I won't be sick about it." Currently her life includes friendly relationships with both her mother and father, but definitely not any Humbert Humbert-like older men. "They don't have enough energy," she says.

Nor, in fact, does she have the time. Shortly before Lolita opened, Blanche ended an off-and-on four-year relationship with an actor one year her senior. "I didn't even have time to have proper fights with him," she laments. Now she shares a one-bedroom apartment high above Manhattan's West Side with a Persian cat named Camille, but she is hardly sitting at home spreading Kitty Litter. Instead she is studying acting with Uta Hagen, sculpting for fun and, she says, "writing poetry which is really dreadful." Her raves from Lolita have given her career an exhilarating momentum, and she looks to the future with but one tiny qualm. "The minute I start looking even 20," the ersatz nymphet says with a grin, "I'm going to be in real trouble."

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