Bridesmaids Revisited

When Five Women Wearing the Same Dress played earlier this season at In Mixed Company, it was greeted with such hosannas that it now has been transferred to the relatively bigtime venue of Stage West at Herberger Theater Center. Mercifully, I was away during the original engagement and so, innocent of its success, I must file this minority report.

It must be admitted that the mostly female audience on opening night tittered almost nonstop at the smutty jokes, relishing the kind of locker-room obscenities rumored to be rampant in the haven of the ladies' room. In fact, I remember another play, with similarly self-conscious indecencies, actually called The Ladies' Room that played in the 1988-89 season at Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles.

Five Women was first produced off-off-Broadway by the Manhattan Class Company in 1993. It was written by one Alan Ball, a member of an obscure cabaret group called "Alarm Dog Rep." It is safe to say his name will appear on no future theatre-history quizzes. Five Women is the kind of play Howard Stern would write if he were to write a play, and it is difficult to conceive why women would find this fake feminism bearable, much less funny.

But they do. The preponderance of female laughter quickly categorized Five Women as a "ghetto play," filled with the sort of smarmy in-jokes that made Party so popular with an all-male gay audience in Chicago and New York. This is the sort of play where the author feels no need to develop dimension in characterization, because the members of the audience will fill in the details as soon as they recognize the generic types.

The five women of the title are really five stereotypes: the uncertain younger sister, the promiscuous cheerleader, the overweight and unfulfilled wife, the liberated dyke and the virginal Christian. No shadings are developed to deepen these broad cliches, who are purportedly gathered together to serve as the wedding party for Tracy, the offstage bride who is marrying Scott.

The dresses are those worn by the bridesmaids, a pink satin horror to be discarded after the ceremony. Having established this basic setup, Ball turns loose his wicked tongue with scathing barbs and lewdly loaded dialogue. There is no plot to describe, only ruminations on sex, life and morality. There is hardly a subject pertinent to women that is left unmentioned, from abortion to sexual molestation. The trouble is that because these cartooned counterfeits possess no reality beyond the confines of the stage, they become mere mouthpieces to spout slogans that demean the seriousness of the subjects raised.

For example, the pretty former cheerleader Trisha admits that she has fornicated with more than a hundred men, and relates that at least one of them--a horny lifeguard--was later discovered in bed with a telephone repair man. She further reveals that he has since died of AIDS complications, and assures her sister confessor that she has been tested, she's "okay." The entire character and the incidents she describes are so incredible that it would be impossible to guess if she is lying or truthful about her HIV status. When she later requests her latest prospective trick, a handsome young stud named Tripp, use protection, it is like reading the label on a package of condoms: practical and clinical, but not illuminating.

Frances, the nerdy virgin, announces: "I am a Christian" in objection to every offer of vice--from a cigarette to a beer to a joint. This provokes meanspirited laughter, insultingly aimed at a generic enemy, the equivalent of a "Polish joke."

Similarly, Mindy, the lesbian sister of the groom, is milked for every homophobic nuance. The overweight Georgeanne lusts after any kind of sexual fix because she and her husband have not had sex in more than a year. When she once tried to confess an indiscretion, she was told: "You don't have to tell me everything you do." The specific nature of that marriage might provide interesting turf for dramatic richness, but it is merely scattered like seeds on the surface, rather than plowed for truth.

The most interesting character, potentially, is Meredith, the younger sister of the bride, whose mystery is not explained away by the revelation that she has been sexually abused by one of her sister's boyfriends. Her refusals of help suggest there might be more to the character's lost identity than she can admit, and it provides the only dramatic shading of the evening.

As for the production, director Jean Thomsen has kept the pace of the action rippling along, expertly timing the laughs (which is difficult to do when they are so plentiful), although my ribs are a bit sore from directorial nudging. Admirably, Thomsen also has expanded reality by creating the wedding that surrounds the play, spilling over into the intermission and even as the audience exits postperformance. This clever device owes more than a little to that raucous off-Broadway comedy Tony and Tina's Wedding, still running in New York, providing audiences with a warmth of familial recognition totally missing from Ball's anemic script. Nearly the entire audience stayed in the cabaret setting during the intermission to partake of drinks and wedding cake--even line dancing.

Holly Vesely has designed a luxurious bedroom where the action takes place, a respite from the festivities of the wedding rituals that can be observed and described as they happen below the balcony. Unfortunately, the convincing look of the room is undermined by the shakiness of the walls when touched by the actors.

All five comediennes play their one-note characters with conviction, with excellent comic skills and a keen sense of timing. None, however, is able to make us believe for a moment that she possesses a beating heart behind the cliche.

If you missed it the first time around, if you are scintillated by stupid, salty jokes, and if you can be satisfied merely to hear the serious issues of our day pronounced without probing, you should not miss Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. Boyfriends, husbands and genuine feminists, be warned: You will feel like an interloper at the wrong funeral.

In Mixed Company's production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress continues through Sunday, June 30, at Stage West in Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.

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Marshall W. Mason