Women Laughing Alone With Salad
Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Kirk Douglas Theatre
Through April 3
From Kate Crackernuts through Crumble (Lay me down, Justin Timberlake), Lascivious Something and Roadkill Confidential to her best work to date, the award-winning Everything You Touch, Sheila Callaghan has purveyed a consistently inventive theatrical vision, always identifiably hers, yet with a flair for ranging variations across a spectrum of anger to whimsy. With two shows currently running locally — the proudly scabrous Bed at the Echo in Atwater Village and the more congenially raunchy Women Laughing Alone with Salad at a contrasting venue, the Kirk Douglas in Culver City — as well as her regular work in television, Callaghan has amassed a track record as one of our most valued playwrights. She has always written for the stage with a flexibility to ply her talents just as she chooses, and there’s every reason to expect that even greater creative freedom lies ahead.
For the presenting Center Theater Group, Salad actually represents a genuine risk of polarizing its core audience. Even before opening, there was word of walkouts and disaffected audience reaction (although the demographic trended towards those even older than I). Callaghan delights in being a graphically funny writer whose humor punches with an ideological twist, jokes whose wit gets under the skin without the salve of reassurance that the humor is all in good fun. She’s a sharp satirist who doesn’t spare the viewer and delights in trafficking in uncomfortable issues of irrational behavior underpinned by demanding psychological insecurities. She isn’t shy about hostility: sometimes you have to wonder whether a character is repressing fury that needs to be released, or aggressing with malice what ought to kept within.
In this play, body issues are the ostensible subject, although actually only a jumping-off point for an examination of gender roles that tweaks cliché without indulging in it. The opening image illustrates the title, as three women sit alongside one another as strangers on a park bench, each indulging with plastic implements scooping out containers of iceberg. They feel amusement at their own stereotype, and their ironic delight is infectious. Then a man plants himself in the middle of the bench, a spanner in the works of female solidarity, however ludicrously embodied.
This male representative, “Guy” (David Clayton Rogers), has a too-close relationship to his Gorgonish mother, Sandy (Lisa Banes), a former feminist activist now obsessed with the physical maintenance of staving off the aging process. His girlfriend Tori (Nora Kirkpatrick) suffers from severe eating issues. Escaping to a dance club, he espies the charismatically comfortable Meredith (Dinora Z. Walcott), an attractively normal-proportioned woman inevitably dismissed by the others as excessively ample.
The action essentially unfolds accordingly to relatively established dramaturgical beats, though Callaghan’s extravagantly bawdy dialogue continually edges the material into outlandish realms that nevertheless sting in their exaggeration of recognizable verisimilitude. It’s daring, yet in its way also careful to manage its transgressions. While the climax of the first act may well seem to be a rambunctious threesome, Callaghan tops that with one of the most chillingly original mother-son comic-horror scenes since Noel Coward’s The Vortex, a coup brilliantly brought off by Banes. (On the downside, the premise that the ‘70’s second-wave sisterhood would terrorize out of the movement a woman who chose not to abort doesn’t convince as period-likely.)
In the second act, Callaghan tips her hat to one of the seminal English playwrights of the last half century, Caryl Churchill, whose landmark classic, Cloud 9, is receiving a superlative, essential revival by the Antaeus Company, as more fully discussed by Terry Morgan in his Stage Raw review. Churchill’s extensive work now seems so enduring, its power so undimmed, that she comprises a serious challenge to the dominance of Harold Pinter in the literature, and her influence might eventually prove as pervasive.
As in Cloud 9, characters here cross-dress to assume roles in counterpoint to how we’ve seen them previously: Banes’ mother is now her son four years later, having followed her advice in abandoning his muse for marketing, while the other two women become bro-bonding male creative execs whipping up seductive images of shaming women into buying a new tranquilizer, and Rogers dons dress and wig as the new senior management of unimpeachable attainment, deploying her advanced education in future-wave feminism to master the dominance of corporate power.
The satire in the second act, which really functions structurally more as a coda, may be a more conventional stripe, but the ironies plumbed are more subversive and tonally unsettling. It withholds any release, let alone resolution, offering no reassurance of the intractability of the issues raised. It’s brave, it probably doesn’t quite work, yet it is intellectually honest and propounds some insights with genuine novelty.
Like the lesser (and less perverse) effort, Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers (currently at the Geffen, and reviewed for SR by Gray Palmer), the implication is suggested that true gender equality does not imply only a lofty level access to achieve excellence, but rather equal opportunity to be mediocre, to be a tool of the system, to be ruthless, selfish, even to be what is now called “a dick.” So long as men are rewarded despite — and even because of — these ineffably human limitations, while a double standard of dismissal pertains to women who are expected to be perfect and then condescended and damned for it through an undermining rhetoric of can’t-win dismissal, there is no legitimate social equity. Equality of opportunity implies an equality of shared human frailty and failings, ideally somewhere beyond judgment alone.
All four players, Walcott and Banes especially, feast on their multiple roles, and the high production values meaningfully enhance the sardonic vitriol of the work. Lighting by Elizabeth Harper, sound by John Zalewski, costumes by Ann Closs-Farley, set by Keith Mitchell and projections by Keith Skretch are masterfully employed to create a novel atmosphere capable of lewdly comic brightness amidst barely repressed existential despair. In short, it seems very much a show directed by Neel Keller, all elements consistent with his own trademark style that can’t quite be pinned down, though it’s easy to recognize and feel comfortable in good hands as he proceeds to lead us through discomfiting acknowledgments of how fucked up even the most quotidian aspects of our existences may be.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1:30 & 6 p.m.; through April 3. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org. Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes with intermission.