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Sally and Marsha/Moving/Parallel Lives

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SALLY AND MARSHA

at the Organic Theatre Company Greenhouse

MOVING

Life Stages Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

PARALLEL LIVES

Illinois Theatre Center

Three shows about women and their relationships have left me with the feeling that my gender is some bizarre alien race that lives to whisper confidences, as if in a perpetual commercial for chocolate-flavored coffee. Two of the shows concentrate on friendship between women of disparate backgrounds. The other is a collection of vignettes that tiptoes around, but never confronts, a variety of women's issues. None of these shows seem to have an original thought or even an interesting spin on an old one.

The show that relies the least on Tampax, hairspray, and panty hose for laughs is Sally and Marsha, Sybille Pearson's play about a South Dakota housewife displaced to New York who befriends a Manhattan neighbor. There's nothing particularly wrong with this premise, aside from its cliche-ridden predictability (I'll bet you can guess which is a sunny optimist who keeps a clean kitchen and which is a neurotic, pseudointellectual slob). In spite of their differences, by the end of scene two they've become fast friends and a barrage of long, heartfelt talks results.

Marsha (the New York native) accuses herself of not being a good mother, sees her therapist five days a week, never finishes anything, gets nauseated by sex, and smokes incessantly. Sally is a pregnant mother/goddess; she bakes pies, attends church, enjoys a healthy sensuality with both her husband and her babies, and makes her own pot holders. Her only complaint is that there never seems to be enough money. She wants to be a "hundred-thousand-dollar wife," but her husband will have to sell a lot of soap for his Amway-style company for that to happen.

Marsha fills Sally's lonely mornings and convinces her to stop reading Dale Carnegie. Sally, serene in her domesticity, helps uptight Marsha discover her own homely talents. The play veers perilously close to preaching the virtues of motherhood and pie baking.

In Pearson's defense, however, she does challenge some of this rhetoric. It's a relief when Marsha, pressured by Sally to have another baby, opts for returning to school instead. And Sally is not unlikable in her cozy universe; her naivete is charming (she says "H" rather than curse) and she's rarely smug. You can almost forgive her for being such a saint.

Mary Dean Carson manages to play Sally without a touch of sanctimony. This may not be deliberate, however. Both actresses (Hannah Dee plays Marsha) seem to empathize solidly with these broadly drawn characters. Each is clearly just beginning to explore basic acting skills and seems incapable of imbuing Pearson's characters with nuance. Director Karen Fort has settled for getting her actresses comfortable onstage; any subtie tensions between Sally and Marsha have been sacrificed.

The characters in Lee Kalcheim's Moving nearly fall over in their rush to explain themselves in the simplest of terms. Since Moving is a one act, perhaps they just feel pressed for time.

As the play opens, Diana (Shelly Drucker) is a freshly graduated cultural anthropologist from a rich family; she worships her dead father and Margaret Mead and has just moved into her first New York apartment. Megan (Jacobina Martin) is a would-be novelist, a more experienced New Yorker, a waitress, and a smoker. Guess which one is the neat freak and which one is the slob.

This odd couple have shared a friendship since college, and the plot takes them through a decade of helping each other move to new apartments, and thus new stages of their lives. At every step we find them embroiled in girl talk. Megan is pregnant and facing another abortion, Diana is realizing that anthropology isn't a practical career. Or Megan is thinking about moving in with a new lover and Diana is miraculously working for Margaret Mead. Or Megan finishes her book and decides to keep her (latest) baby while Diana (now a lesbian) gets up the guts to ask her lover to move in.

The question here is: Who cares? This is soap opera stuff, a young girl's fantasy about living in the Big Apple with her best friend down the street. The women's conversations are peppered with long, meaningful silences broken by the earnest "Are you OK?" Each always manages to say something wise and comforting when the other is in a jam. It comes closer to those coffee commercials than to real emotional truths.

Drucker and Martin are superb, but wasted, actors. Good as they are, they can't breathe much meaning into this slice-of-life comedy, though they manage to deliver a few chuckles. In the end director Candace Hunter comes up with nothing better than a couple of character sketches.

Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy both won Obie awards for their performances off-Broadway in The Kathy & Mo Show. Those must have been very strong performances, because this collection of sketches suffers tremendously when not in the hands of its original creators.

Playing at the Illinois Theatre Center, directed by Steve S. Billig, and competently performed by Cathy Bieber and Linda Ann Waner, it is very difficult to see what all the fuss is about. From a very stereotypical portrayal of a blond coed and her hunky boyfriend to an even more simplistic sketch about a pair of teenage New Jersey girls to a mystifyingly dumb vignette about a pair of Shakespearean actresses, Parallel Lives not only fails to address many relevant women's issues, it barely manages to entertain.

It has its moments of truth. A woman in a country bar allows a drunk to flirt with her because it brightens her bleak life for a moment. A little girl who wants to be a priest is told she can't and threatens, "I'll sue." But such little moments are rare in this sticky-sweet comedy revue. Characters fade in and out, bulimia and abortion get their obligatory mention, and every vignette seems to drag on forever. Warier's determination and Bieber's endearing stage presence can't save this one. Something must've gotten lost in the translation.

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