Ann & Abby: Off the Page and Live on Stage!/Ladies on the Couch | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Ann & Abby: Off the Page and Live on Stage!/Ladies on the Couch

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ANN & ABBY: OFF THE PAGE AND LIVE ON STAGE!

Diva Productions

at Live Bait Theater

LADIES ON THE COUCH

Annoyance Theatre

Ann & Abby: Off the Page and Live on Stage! is a musical revue that's part camp, part heartfelt advice. It's lots of fun, but don't look for much more than that. And don't think that Ann and Abby are in any way supposed to parody or emulate America's best-loved advice columnists Ann Landers and her sister Abigail Van Buren. According to the official press information, these two big-haired ladies are simply sisters who have been writing advice columns for the past 40 years and now want to break into show biz, and any resemblance to the real-life big-haired advice columnists is purely coincidental.

Given that statement, what you've got here is a couple of quick-witted, zany women with big cardboard wigs on their heads who sing and dance their way through a couple of whiz-bang numbers and then try to offer advice to the audience. The first half of this production, conceived, written, and performed by Michele Cole and Teria Gartelos (with Randy Herman playing piano) comes off as a clever parody of that Mitzi Gaynor/Bob Hope-style sentimentality and false morality that went out of style in the late 1950s. Ann and Abby, a personable pair, tell about how they always wanted to get into show business: Their father used to own a chain of vaudeville houses in Sioux City, Iowa, where they used to hang out with the showgirls. That was where they learned about sex, and also how they got their start in the advice business. And then they try to entertain us.

Abby (Cole) recites a terribly dramatic monologue that makes you want to counsel her not to give up her day job. Ann (Gartelos) then sings "What Do You Get When You Fall in Love?" totally overacting and with an Ethel Merman voice to boot. These two ladies are delightfully cheesy performers, charming despite their lack of talent, because Gartelos and Cole are strong actors.

But although the performers pull out all the stops, something is missing. In the first half this void is masked by some good jokes and flashy performances. But in the second half, as Ann and Abby pass the microphone around and ad-lib advice to the needy souls in the audience, it becomes clear that Gartelos and Cole haven't really decided what their show is about. This segment feels like part Oprah, part group therapy, and part Broadway revue--and unfortunately, they don't meld together into a harmonious whole.

The audience, too, seems a bit confused: were they supposed to fabricate a caricature of a problem for characters who were obviously caricatures of advice columnists? Cole and Gartelos don't seem to have a view of the larger picture: what purpose advice columnists serve, or more interestingly what the existence of advice columnists tells us about American society. So the audience is left to wonder what it all means--this combination of advice, jokes, and song and dance.

If Gartelos and Cole truly want to dispense advice, they need to develop a clear logical and moral framework and work within it. Some of their advice and communication tactics (such as a couples therapy session) seemed to come from left field, and certainly didn't seem in keeping with the sentimentality of the first half. Nor did they seem very useful to the audience. The concept of a song-and-dance advice show is clever. But without intellectual underpinnings, this show comes off as skewed and frustratingly sophomoric.

Ladies on the Couch is billed as an "uncensored two-woman comedy that explores the simple lives of two gay women." Although it promises to be somewhat politically challenging, this show--directed by Susan Messing and starring Kari Finn and Susan Howard--is more cute than threatening, and that seems to be a good thing. In a series of vignettes and songs, Finn and Howard explore lesbian relations in a lighthearted, wholesome manner that reminds me of a show I saw in June about a young boy's coming of age in Moline. The overall message goes something like, "Sure, dealing with your sexuality can be painful at times, but there are also some tender, funny moments and they're worth putting onstage."

Homosexuality is fertile ground for theater, maybe because there's drama in homosexual relationships that doesn't exist in heterosexual relationships. Ladies on the Couch incorporates a lot of these themes in a series of vignettes that poke fun at the struggle of lesbians but still take that struggle seriously. The first scene consists of a conversation between Finn and Howard in which Finn refuses to be aggressive toward heterosexuals in any way because she doesn't want to give lesbians a bad name. Another turns social convention on its ear by creating a world where being gay is the norm and public displays of affection among heterosexual couples are the subject of much discussion and disgust. Some scenes are about mating rituals: two women sit uncomfortably on the couch, struggling like a pair of 12-year-olds with the desire to make a pass at each other; one woman refuses to marry the woman she loves because her parents would object--not because she's gay, but because she's not Jewish.

In between scenes Finn and Howard play the guitar and sing a couple of tunes about growing up gay. The two are accomplished performers. They seem comfortable onstage, and they thoroughly enjoy performing. At times their attitudes seem almost too light: the penultimate monologue is a pretty fiery piece, one that ends with the two of them exclaiming "Fuck you" to the audience even though their anger doesn't seem to run that deep. But this is a play that offers more honey than vinegar, and in doing that makes a controversial subject a little easier to swallow.

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