I remember exactly what I was wearing the first time my husband saw me.
It was a navy cotton blouse, with red buttons and a scoop neckline bordered in white pique. I wore it with a narrow, white sharkskin skirt that had side pockets and a short slit in the back, for walking.
I was 15, shopping for a pair of heels. He was a part-time shoe dog, waiting for his "ups."
We didn't actually meet for another year.
Back in the stockroom, another dog bragged about a hot date he'd had with me. A total lie, but there wasn't anyone there to refute it.
Hello, welcome to my memory. This peek at what goes on in there is the fastest way to explain my admiration for Ilene Beckerman's perfect (and perfectly titled) little book, Love, Loss, and What I Wore. I've been a fan ever since it came out and am a repeat buyer, plucking it off the impulse-purchase stand—where it was so mistakenly marketed—to give as a gift to everyone from my octogenarian aunt to my twentysomething editor, all of whom loved it too. That should have made me the ideal audience for the play of the same name, based on the book, which opened here last week.
It sounded promising. The play was written by the sister team of Nora and Delia Ephron. Together and separately, these brilliant women have turned out a string of films that includes Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, and Julie & Julia. And Nora famously wrote the innovative and blisteringly funny novel Heartburn, a recipe-studded fictional account of her divorce from Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. Who could be better suited to translate Beckerman's unique biography, which tells the story of her life through the clothes she wore, for the stage?
Beckerman was a 60-year-old New Jersey granny with no experience as an author or illustrator when her book was published in 1995. She originally devised it as a legacy for her grandchildren, and it's a picture book with minimal text—but it's not a children's book. Her publisher, Algonquin Books, didn't quite know what to do with it. Nora Ephron told the Chicago Sun-Times's Hedy Weiss in a recent interview that Algonquin sent the manuscript to her, asking if she'd write an introduction. Ephron took one look and informed them, correctly, that it needed nothing. Since then, Love, Loss, and What I Wore has sold more than 100,000 copies.
The play opened two years ago in New York, and is still running there. I haven't seen that production, but this one, at the Water Tower theater now known as the Broadway Playhouse (what were they thinking?), is a reminder that tinkering with perfection is generally nuts. In spite of a few laughs (the Ephrons are good at funny), it has more in common with the cloddish Vagina Monologues than with Beckerman's elegant book. In fact, the Ephrons appropriated the VM model whole cloth: what you get for your $68-$78 ticket is five actresses perched on stools, reading embellished excerpts from Beckerman's book, interspersed with vignettes written by the sisters, including some based on stories solicited from other women. At this point, there aren't even any celebrities, unless Nora Dunn counts as one (Loretta Swit is supposed to join the cast in November).
Padded with this extraneous material, including de rigueur tales of breast cancer, rape, and lesbian love, the play plods off in the wrong direction. It elaborates and emotes, while the power of Beckerman's book comes from something totally opposite: the deadpan minimalism and discretion of its spare text and simple drawings. "The spring after my mother died, my father took me to B. Altman's department store on Fifth Avenue to buy a dress for my thirteenth birthday" is what Beckerman writes—and all she writes—about the loss of her mother. The play appends what we already know: "We were both so sad."
Beckerman also tapped into a rich vein of historical material. The majority of her book is about the three decades starting with the 1940s, when few women had lives outside of their homes, most of them made their own clothes, and submerged oceans of female creative energy were channeled into fashion. The 1970s, '80s, and '90s, when Levis and women's rights marginalized fashion, are squeezed into a single chapter. It isn't just that Beckerman aged into a closet full of black. It's that—in spite of the huge import-of-appearance gap that persists between the sexes—most of us now dress mainly for utility, in clothes that we purchase in haste, usually made in China.
So updating Love, Loss, and What I Wore is dicey. But the writing isn't the only thing wrong with the Chicago production. Barbara Robertson's chortling version of Beckerman's cool Gingy strikes me as a misfit, and on the night I saw it, an astounding three of the five actresses turned in painfully halting performances, as if they'd barely bothered to try on the material they were reading. The exceptions were the intrepid Felicia Fields and an apparently last-minute newcomer to the cast, Roni Geva, both of whom managed to pull life and laughs out of the rags they'd been given to work with.
Even Beckerman hasn't been able to recapture the magic of her debut. Her subsequent books are wordier and more expository. In 1997 she published a follow-up that treads a lot of the same ground as Love, Loss but explains everything that had been so poetically implied. Its title is What We Do for Love. Maybe that's the title this play should be wearing.