The Graduates

I confess. I went to see the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre's revival of Wendy Wasserstein's 1977 Uncommon Women and Others with an attitude. True, any production of a play written by a woman and directed by a woman (in this case, Amy London Tarallo) and featuring an all-woman cast is cause for celebration in the female-director-and-writer-deprived South Florida theater scene. Of the forty-plus shows I've sat through this season, a mere eight were directed by women, and only five were written by women, with one of those authors -- Jane Martin -- rumored to be a man writing under a pseudonym. Yet I've never been enamored of Wasserstein's work. Relying on glib one-liners and breezy resolutions, her writing recalls clever television scripts crossed with witty magazine essays. Her early plays, including Isn't It Romantic? and Uncommon Women, seem precocious rather than developed. Her more recent offerings -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles and the Broadway hit The Sisters Rosensweig -- although marked by tart observations and bittersweet characterizations, feel schematic. So when I see one of her oft-produced plays trotted out once again, it makes me yearn for local companies to tackle more inventive writers such as Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks, Naomi Wallace, or Wendy Kesselman. But this bright-eyed production at the cozy Hollywood Boulevard Theatre in Hollywood surprised me.

Crisp direction by Tarallo and fresh performances by a well-tuned ensemble of actors bring out the best in Uncommon Women. The play started life as Wasserstein's Yale School of Drama graduate thesis before evolving into a full-length off-Broadway success about a group of friends before and after graduation from an elite New England women's college. Although episodic, rambling, and antique in places, the script, as interpreted by Tarallo and gang, also proves to be funny, wry, and an unexpectedly relevant take on women's concerns.

Uncommon Women opens with a reunion of five college pals in 1978, then quickly flashes back to senior year, 1972, at all-female Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. This Seven Sisters school is churning out a crop of supposed high achievers, women who are uncommon because, more than any generation before them, they believe exceptional accomplishments are their destiny. Unlike their foremothers, they have not gone to college in pursuit of an "Mrs." degree, nor do they intend to pop out babies a year after graduation. Instead, law firms, film companies, archaeological digs, and literary triumphs await.

Would that success were so simple. As Wasserstein suggests, choices and the responsibility imposed by being uncommon foster anxiety. While one of the five has remained ferociously focused on getting into law school throughout her college career, the rest of the chums aren't quite sure what to do. Some of them, in fact, might just fall into marriage and motherhood for fear of blazing alternative paths; others may flounder around directionless and lonely.

Rather than resolve such conflicts, however, Wasserstein scrutinizes them by having her characters endlessly share worries, exchange confessions, and tease each other -- sometimes affectionately, sometimes with bite. While this talky overanalysis felt indulgent when I first saw the show in the early Eighties, it seems more authentic now; with fifteen years of experience under my belt, I appreciate the inherent difficulties in reconciling the demands of career, marriage, and family. Dramatically, however, such a lack of resolution still threatens to make matters tedious. Wisely, Tarallo uses it to her advantage by instructing her actors to interact as if they were at an extended slumber party. A portrait of girls on the threshold of becoming women emerges, along with an accurate rendering of dorm life at a posh college, complete with barbed parodies of Seven Sisters rituals such as attending social teas and assigning senior "elves" to act as secret guardians for freshmen. Along with collectively agonizing over the future, these girls-women laugh together a lot, listen to Carole King and James Taylor (sometimes the Seventies seem so far away!), and reference such amazon female role models as Mary McCarthy, Germaine Greer, and Simone de Beauvoir.

The uniformly convincing cast depicts the show's dutiful daughters with affection and empathy. As Kate, the corporate attorney-in-training before graduation and the workaholic law partner afterward, Maribeth Graham projects equal amounts of drive and ambivalence. During college, glamorous Muffet chooses men over her girlfriends every time; six years later she's still alone. Gia Bradley-Cheda incorporates that irony in her portrayal of the character. Irene Adjan, who appears regularly in local musicals, proves particularly strong as the promiscuous and jaded Rita. Jennifer Fenn, an actor with a quietly powerful stage presence, infuses the role of Leilah with intelligent complexity, as the character grapples with disconcerting feelings for her roommate Kate. The play's Wasserstein surrogate is Holly Kaplan. As the brainy, nouveau riche daughter of the inventor of velveteen, Holly finds herself simultaneously in her element at the expensive Mt. Holyoke and on the fringe of its WASP student body. Angela Thomas brings an infectious laugh, a caustic tone, and a sense of vulnerability to her role, particularly during a deflating and poignant late-night phone conversation with a man she met briefly in a museum and about whom she has been unrealistically fantasizing.

Jessica Cooke, Marjorie O'Neill Butler, Finnerty Steeves, and Meredith Mursuli round out the circle with solid performances. Paul Waxman's set design of a New England college sitting room furnished with a few antiques provides an elegant and unobtrusive background against which Wasserstein's vignettes about friendship unfold. And while Wasserstein may not be the riskiest voice in contemporary theater, female or otherwise, this intelligently directed production, rich in talent and camaraderie, does offer insight into what certain women of a certain class want, or at least think they want, and just how challenging it is for them to obtain it.

Uncommon Women and Others.
Written by Wendy Wasserstein; directed by Amy London Tarallo; with Maribeth Graham, Jessica Cooke, Angela Thomas, Gia Bradley-Cheda, Irene Adjan, Marjorie O'Neill Butler, Finnerty Steeves, and Meredith Mursuli and Jennifer Fenn. Through May 19. For information, call 929-5400 or see "Calendar Listings.


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