Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Out of the closet with nothing to wear

It's summertime, and the livin' is easy; so many feel the theatre should be, too. And no doubt those folks would be quite taken with Nora and Delia Ephron's Love, Loss, and What I Wore, which is currently being given its Boston premiere by the spanking new Hub Theatre Company.  

The Hub production, helmed by local luminary Paula Plum, proves solid, but never quite inspired - though I have to admit, I'm not quite sure how this light little conceit could be made to feel inspired. The Ephrons (the late, celebrated Nora, and her younger sister Delia, also an accomplished writer) seem to have had the idea to eventually have an idea that, alas, they never quite get around to having. They seem to want to explore the relationship that women have with their clothes (or with their self-presentation generally) and how that relates to the relationship they have with - well, the world at large, the events of their lives. But precisely what the relationship is between those two relationships the Ephrons never quite get around to articulating.

Their script is loosely based on a memoir of the same name by Ilene Beckerman - a gnomic text perhaps most notable for the flat affect of its descriptions of the author's life events (i.e., marriage, divorce, remarriage, and six children - one of whom died in infancy), all of which only seem to rate mention as framing devices - hangers, if you will - for ruminations on her wardrobe. The book therefore feels more than a little odd - but there's a sense of deadpan (even cold) comedy to the writing that's somehow memorable (after all, whatever happens in your life, good or bad, you want to look your best when it happens, don't you?).  In the end, Beckerman's clothes seem to have mattered more to her than her marriages and her children. But that is kind of funny.

Alas, her deadly-droll tone seems to have eluded the Ephrons.  Beckerman's voice simply isn't their voice, and even though they quote the author liberally in the slim backbone of their play (a series of skits revolving around the red-haired "Gingy"), they basically erase her sensibility, and replace it with their own, which boils down to a self-aware, but still sappy, variant on Hollywood "heart."

Now this is okay, as far as it goes - the Ephrons weren't successful screenwriters for nothing - but in the end it doesn't quite go far enough; or at least their amusing patchwork of monologues (performed by five actresses in stylish black) doesn't go the distance we expect of a 90-minute play (director Plum claims the script is 75 minutes, but seasoned theatre-goers know to add 15 minutes to the claimed running time of any production, anywhere, by anyone). Beckerman, of course, could assume that her readers were unlikely to take in her text in a single sitting; it's the kind of book you pick up, read a snippet from, and then put down again; so it's written to be read that way.

But you can't put down a live performance and pick it up a few days later - and scripts (particularly those driven by "heart") generally thrive on a build of emotional and thematic connection rather than Beckerman's repeated motif of abrupt, vaguely absurd declamation.  What we get then, in Love, Loss, etc., is an odd mix of worldly-wise schmaltz, Hollywood-style scenelets, and blank, even bleak, little dramedies - all held together by a kind of knowing affection for what the Ephrons assume is a universal mode of narcissism. I have to admit I didn't quite feel, however, that this affection actually held the script together; the book may have been weird, but at least it didn't contradict itself.

Still, the Ephrons' talent for one liners keeps tugging skit after skit over the finish line, and even the fact that most of what they dish up here feels re-heated somehow plays to their advantage: after all, many (perhaps most) people now go to the theatre to re-experience the familiar.  Even the play's unvarying tone (everyone tends to talk like smart Jewish ladies of a certain age, and certain means) has as its flip side a comforting vibe of re-assurance. And the lengthy retreads of hoary tropes like "I've got nothing to wear!" and "I hate my purse!" were nevertheless met with smiles of approval from the audience I saw the show with; "Yes, yes," the laughter around me seemed to say. "I already know I like this!"  Nothing dramatic may actually develop in Love, Loss, etc., but maybe that's a selling point.

To be fair, one or two vignettes - particularly one about breast cancer - manage to do more than crack wise in the name of the almighty sisterhood. Director Plum illuminates no hidden arcs in the material - not even for Gingy (and I think there is one) - but she does keep things moving, knows the commercial bottom line of the piece, and orchestrates the Ephrons' beats, pauses and punchlines like the old pro that she is. The standout of the cast was Linda Goetz, who alone  seemed to limn something of the unspoken pain hinted at in the original book.  Not far behind was newcomer Adobuere Ebiama, who mostly got by on her luminous presence, but who has obvious potential. Elsewhere I found myself amused - if not quite gripped - by performers Lauren Elias and Theresa Chiasson - but have to add that I was in the end dissatisfied with the likable June Kfoury, who doesn't seem to have given her performance as the po-faced "Gingy" any serious thought at all.  What does it mean to remember your dress rather than your wedding, or what you wore the day you were raped instead of what you endured?  I left this play scratching my head about such denial - but somehow I think the Ephrons were as clueless about this as I was.  Oh, well!  I suppose a little girl power and a few good lines are enough for a summer evening's entertainment; but after the crackling smarts of this fledgling company's premiere production, Lebensraum, I admit I was hoping for more.

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