Deep in the dark, scary heart of downtown's warehouse district, the fledgling Stray Cat Theatre has scored another success. With The Dianalogues, this inventive young company kicks off its second season in a drafty hangar that's well off the beaten path but well worth finding.
Laurel Haines' collection of comic monologues already has garnered some far-flung attention. The Dianalogues began as an installment of the Sundance-funded Wordbridge project and was featured last season in the Herberger's Brown Bag series. ASU alum Haines has since seen her set of character sketches about Lady Diana Spencer performed in Portland, Seattle and Indianapolis -- and even in drag.
In fact, the first of Haines' 10 monologues is performed by a female impersonator, a Diana doppelganger who makes his living posing as the late lady. Worried that he's wasting his career pretending to be someone he's not, River also frets about outgrowing his job. He and the women who come after him haven't met, but they all have one thing in common: a connection with Princess Di, whose luminous life touched each of theirs, often in very peculiar ways.
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There's Doreen, resident of a sleepaway camp for fat girls who's been sneaking lard into her campmates' dinners, and Arlene, a Diana fan who's certain that the lady has faked her own death and is living in Spain, far from the glare of fame. We meet Shari, a high-strung attorney who orders a "Princess Diana Fantasy Wedding" but receives a "Princess Leah Star Wars Wedding" kit instead. And we meet Candy, a hard-nosed cabby and clearly the audience favorite. She winds up driving Diana as a late-night fare and advises the royal to fix Charles' wandering ways with a pocketknife.
The Dianalogues skewers life in America and its pop-culture obsessions. Haines infuses considerable wit into the shopworn theme of women navigating the big, bad, male-dominated world and has spared us the banality of handing each of her heroines a happy ending. Not all of these women emerge triumphant; in fact, several are sorry: dimwitted, delusional, overcome with insecurities. They speak in punch lines, each in a different accent -- Texan, North Dakotan and, of course, British -- but their messages are familiar: "We want autonomy."
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By far the most amusing and most effectively portrayed vignette is "Jean," in which Nina Kulhawy is a Queens housewife whose husband is obsessed with Lady Di. In a broad, flawless Welsh accent, Jean describes her personal hell: Bent by her husband's rule, she's seen the video of Diana's wedding 956 times and finds herself at odd hours impersonating the poses on her hubby's collection of Princess Di commemorative plates.
The acting is uneven and sometimes amateurish, but it's always energetic and often inspired. Besides Kulhawy's smart performance, there's Paulina Glider's amusing turn as Mother Teresa, who's here to complain about having to get in line behind Diana in heaven. (As an amusing in-joke, director Ron May has the saint read her monologue as an acceptance speech from the stage of the ariZoni Awards.)
The monologues are framed by a pair of mawkish mother-daughter sketches that, given the camp and comedy sandwiched between, seem schmaltzy and out of place. Likewise the unfunny and frankly baffling blackouts between each monologue, wherein two cast members hunker behind a table and enact silly scenes involving Barbie and Ken dolls.
Trimmed of these unnecessary excesses, The Dianalogues could be first-rate. In the meantime, it's a worthwhile diversion, marked by good writing and some singular performances -- and worth a trip into downtown's nether regions.