Five Southern women, some hard liquor, and about two and a half bolts of lilac-color taffeta. If we threw in Julia Roberts and a walk-on by Tommy Lee Jones, would we have another Steel Magnolias? Happily, no. Where that film drowned in a cloying syrup of bathos and fake accents, the Acting Studio's Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, produced by the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, merely hints at melodrama while delivering a steady stream of laughs.
Oscar winner Alan Ball's meaty script delivers wisecracks, bawdy jokes, snappy comebacks, and sassy retorts with the precise timing of great stand-up comedy yet maintains a narrative flow. The dramatic movement of the play revolves around three characters who never appear onstage: the bride, the groom, and an Everycad Lothario appropriately named Tommy Valentine. The characters we meet in person are bridesmaids hiding out in an upstairs bedroom while a high-society wedding reception drones on outside. But this is no standard girl-buddy-slumber-party-passing-the-Codependent No More-handbook-around-and-gorging-on-Häagen-Dazs tale, thanks both to Ball and to strong performances all around.
The title conceit -- a gaudy lilac skirt with a satin bodice and floppy, wide-brimmed, white-lace sun hat (obviously the bride's best effort to make herself the only attractive woman at her wedding) -- requires both writer and actor quickly to define each character. Ball's script provides the audience with some handy labels for these women: Frances, the fundamentalist Christian (Claire Tyler); Georgeanne, the unhappy wife (Kim Noël); Mindy, the lesbian (Susanne Kreitman); Trish, the free spirit (Kim Ostrenko); and Meredith, the bride's rebellious little sister (Jennifer Ryan Peery).
After the early identification, each character's personality emerges gradually, organically. Ball has layered the revelations, never turning the spotlight on any one person for too long. Each of these actresses ably completes the characterization, especially Ostrenko, Noël, and Kreitman. Kim St. Leon's evenhanded and insightful direction makes good use of the static set of Meredith's bedroom: The characters stroll, slouch, and storm around the set, entering and exiting naturally without actual scene changes. This gives the sense that the individual dramas taking place inside are interwoven with the external reality of the wedding reception. And though Trish eventually becomes the play's protagonist, St. Leon wisely does not allow the character to dominate the stage in this ensemble piece.
Georgeanne is the first to reveal herself, though not as literally as she would have liked. She enters drunk and belligerent, toting an almost empty bottle of champagne, her black bra straps hanging out of her dress. I bought over $100 of lingerie from Victoria's Secret so Tommy Valentine could rip them off me, she wails. Her long-time friend Trish points out that Tommy got Georgeanne pregnant in college and abandoned her to deal with the abortion alone. Ten years later he again screwed her, by a Dumpster in a parking lot, then never called her afterward. Georgeanne laments, But I love him, and alludes to the erotic stirrings the smell of garbage now evokes in her. That's not love, Trish observes. That's addiction.
Lines like this could form the refrain of a particularly trite Robert Palmer song, but Ostrenko delivers them deftly. She knows better than to load facile banter with too much emotional freight. Instead she saves her character's wisdom and vulnerability for more-substantial moments. When she refers to Tripp Davenport (Stephen G. Anthony), a wedding guest who has his eye on her, she says, He has that look, like you're at a really boring party and you're the only two with drugs.
Noël does a similarly skillful job with a very different character. She makes Georgeanne's drunken histrionics both funny and believable because her existential angst is ultimately very down-to-earth. She cries, lolls about, and then jumps to her feet to look for more liquor and hot wings.
In her portrayal of Mindy, Kreitman does a fine job of stereotype-smashing. As she sashays across the floor showing off her charm-school training, she dispels the myth of the ungraceful lesbian. In one of the play's most memorable scenes, she imitates Miss America receiving her crown. For a few minutes, she completely embodies a pageant winner, even down to the tears and thanking God for being an American. When she collapses back into herself and says, Those girls are better than drag queens. Hell, they are drag queens, it is an almost chilling reminder of how thoroughly women are programmed to play certain roles.
The two most underdeveloped of the title characters are Meredith and Frances. Meredith, lost in the pomp of her sister's wedding and obviously resentful of having to play the high-society role, is a recent college graduate who seems to take more pleasure in the idea of being a rebel than in actual rebellion. She insulates herself from her family with the superficial trappings of youthful angst: a Malcolm X poster on her bedroom wall, a T-shirt that reads Whatever, heavy-metal music.
The moment when Meredith recounts her own sordid (and terrifying) history with Tommy V., showing a possible source for her pent-up hostility, is a crucial one for both her character and the narrative as a whole, but it just doesn't resonate. Peery hasn't given her character the emotional range to supply the revelation with the dramatic potency it needs. She does a better job when Mindy tries to comfort Meredith. In her first true display of hostility, Meredith lashes out, treating this act of kindness as an attempt at seduction. Here Meredith's insecurity, aggression, and sense of betrayal ring absolutely true.
Like Kreitman, Tyler is saddled with a stereotypical character: the born-again Southern Baptist Frances. Tyler plays the role with an exuberant, redneck girlishness reminiscent of her recent role as Scout in GableStage's Popcorn. Unfortunately, unlike Scout (or Kreitman's Mindy here), Frances never quite gets beyond the caricature. Even her heated confrontation with Trish over the validity of the Bible does not reveal anything new or interesting about her character. Tyler is hilarious and sublimely Southern Baptist, but she can't imbue Frances with an added dimension, which is probably more Alan Ball's fault than hers.
The Acting Studio's production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is not groundbreaking theater, but it does deliver solid acting, intelligent dialogue, and unpretentious entertainment. Playwright Ball shows off the same skills here that he developed as a sitcom writer for shows such as Grace Under Fire: knee-slapping humor tinged with nondogmatic feminism. Just don't expect the dark perversion of his Oscar-winning screenplay for American Beauty. This is a conversational comedy with little transformation but lots of laughs.
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