The Ladies Who Lunch

Having twice reviewed Parallel Lives: The Kathy and Mo Show in the past half-dozen years, I'm looking for a new angle. The folks at Actors Theatre of Phoenix, which last week opened its third production of this popular show, are quick to arrange a lunch meeting with its stars, former Phoenician Kathy Fitzgerald (who starred in the original ATP production in 1993 before moving on to Broadway musical theater fame), and local favorite Katie McFadzen. The amusing two-person collection of skits and standup routines, penned in leaner times by actors Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, has nothing on the lunchtime antics of its current cast.

Fitzgerald and McFadzen -- fresh from tech rehearsal and accompanied by Fitzgerald's five-month-old daughter, Hope -- follow a stream-of-consciousness arc full of quippy asides and private jokes. They affect funny voices, refer to one another's imaginary penises and plot new ways to promote their show ("We gotta hit the lezbo bars and put posters up," one of them says, and the other explains, "Our show is very lesbian-friendly."), but still manage to answer, eventually, every question put to them.

Over lunch, they play civilian versions of themselves: Fitzgerald is the former local gal made good, McFadzen the grateful resident star. They eat almost nothing: McFadzen announces that she's starving, then orders an English muffin; Fitzgerald nibbles an omelet between comments about the fate of the Broadway musical.

"When you've got Susan Lucci starring in Annie Get Your Gun, something's wrong," she says. "Broadway has become so theme park-y and ..."

"Name-ish," McFadzen finishes. "It's all about which big star you can shove into which big crappy show."

"Crappy," Fitzgerald repeats, leaning in close to my tape recorder. "Ooh, yes, that's good. Let's sit here and trash New York, then try to go get work there."

Fitzgerald needn't worry. After a long string of local hits during the last decade (including Six Women With Brain Death and Lily Tomlin's Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, shows that ran forever and firmly established her as our preeminent local stage star), she left for the Great White Way. There, she landed a Broadway role (the musical revue Swinging on a Star) and followed it with rave reviews in the long-running Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know.

Despite the accolades, Fitzgerald downplays her success, either for the sake of modesty or as a nod to her co-star, whom she's concerned isn't getting equal attention from the press regarding their new show.

"I get cast in New York, but only if the five other actresses who do what I do happen to be busy," she deadpans. "I'm sort of in the club, but I'm hanging on by my pinkies. I've had some great breaks."

In fact, she's done better than that. She's snagged a Drama Desk nomination and appeared on the Swinging on a Star cast album. She's being considered for The Seussical, a musical based on the children's stories of Dr. Seuss, with a book by Monty Python's Eric Idle and music and lyrics by the creators of Ragtime. She works a lot, and her work is almost always well received.

McFadzen rejects the notion that it's tough to appear opposite a New York star in a play that she has, after all, played several hundred times before. "I'm taking lots of Quaaludes," she jokes. "And I'm in therapy three times a week.

"Actually, I was nervous, going in. I thought, 'It's going to be a remount, I'll just be filling in for someone; it'll be Kathy's show and no one will notice me.' Then we started working and I was fine."

She's more than fine, in fact. Her performances in Parallel Lives -- as a teenage boy, a lesbian folk singer and several others -- find her firmly outside Fitzgerald's magnificent shadow. In one piece, "Three Sisters," she quietly upstages Fitzgerald, who's playing two different characters, with a simple monologue about a long-secret eating disorder. In "Silent Torture," she cops the evening's loudest applause by expertly miming her morning ablutions in time with a jangly classical piece.

Fitzgerald is also in fine form. She's reworked several of her characters from previous productions, and the result is a less-zany and much funnier Jersey teen ("Annette and Gina") and a hilariously goofy grandma who's returned to college as a women's studies major ("Las Hermanas").

The piece soars when the pair plays off one another. Their biggest laugh, on opening night, came as they tried not to bust up over a particularly randy sight gag. Later, in a terrible piece of writing called "Hank and Karen Sue," Fitzgerald and McFadzen bring depth and humor to the skit that aren't on the page.

"It's a different show because I'm different than I was last time I did it," Fitzgerald says. "It's six and a half years later; I'm a jaded old bag now. I've actually met some of the characters I play in this show since I moved to New York. I didn't know them before."

She begins to answer a pretentious question about how these people have informed her performance, but McFadzen gently steps in.

"It's a cute little fluffy show," she says. "The idea is not to create great depth. It's about, Let's go out there and ..."

"Get some laughs," Fitzgerald yelps. "It's not Chekhov, it's not Brecht. It's a funny little show where Katie wears a wig that makes her look like Christopher Walken."

McFadzen smiles demurely, and Fitzgerald leans in conspiratorially. "Katie has a very large penis, you know."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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