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Female Figures

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Last week, Broadway dimmed its lights to mourn the passing of American playwright Wendy Wasserstein. It was a tribute to a writer responsible for two influential Broadway hits and also the first woman to win the Tony award for Best Play without sharing it with a man.

The Los Angeles theater world doesn't have an equivalent ritual to mark the death of a dramatic icon, but a quirk of scheduling has proved a fitting tribute this past week as two of the Westside's larger venues are hosting shows entirely about--and starring--women.

The first is Eve Ensler's The Good Body, a follow up of sorts to her mega-sensation The Vagina Monologues; but here, the body part in question is the stomach.

Ensler is at war with her prosperous belly--The Good Body's only prop per-se--which she shows to the audience on more than one occasion.

The point of this--and the show--seems to be: ---Hey, I'm Eve Ensler, and even I worry about my appearance.--- The playwright/performer/activist has interviewed women around the world, whom Ensler impersonates in short scenes interspersed between rants about her own body issues.

It's not exactly theater, but it is surprisingly amusing, thanks to Ensler's bizarre mix of chutzpah and charm; but there is throughout The Good Body a feeling of obviousness. The audience is shown that supermodels and Beverly Hills socialites are somewhat shallow and not as happy as they seem. We also learn that women in places like Africa and India aren't neurotic about carbs. These news flashes make up far too much of The Good Body, and no matter how well-intentioned and inspiring it may be to some, Ensler relies on the bluntness of preachment, rather of the subtlety of art.

The same cannot be said of Boston Marriage, David Mamet's enigmatic farce about turn-of-the-century lesbians. One imagines a feminist like Ms. Ensler might have something to say about Mamet's first all-female play--and indeed Boston Marriage will likely drum up lots of chatter (and dissertations) about a man's man writing about women's women.

Never having encountered any Gilded Age, society sapphists, I can't say whether the characters of Claire and Anna ring true--to me their cozy banter sounded like two aging queens circa 1970, or even two metrosexuals circa 2003. This may not be to everyone's taste, but I feel the incestuousness of Claire and Anna's patter--the closed circuit of their communication--is a key element of this play about the illusion of safety that language can provide.

That language is fast, rich and filled with wordplay and innuendo, with shameless exaggeration of puns and double entendres courtesy of the director, the playwright himself.

I have a few reservations about the play, but what's certain about this revival is that Mamet the director brings out what is best in both the text of Boston Marriage--as well as his cast. The pacing of the entire piece, the cadences of each character's speech, all of this is so finely tuned that Mamet wrings emotion and tension out of the unlikeliest of places.

That Rebecca Pidgeon, the playwright's wife, succeeds so thoroughly with this material is not a surprise (also, she originated the role in Boston); but Mary Steenburgen also proves to by quite fluent in &quotMametspeak;&quot--and; she conveys effectively the unspoken nuances of the role.

Her Anna is a lesbian mix of Wilde's Lady Bracknell and von Hofmannsthal's Marschallin; and in costume and gesture, Steenbergen makes her a wonderfully sour grande dame.

Rounding out this Boston trio is Alicia Silverstone as Catherine, the Scottish maid. This is a role with which a veteran character actor could steal the show. Silverstone does not. Her accent is affected and while her bio in the program runs twice as long as the other actresses, her stage presence is but a fraction of her fellow castmates. Steenburgen and Pidgeon may not have the chemistry together of, say Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell--a tough task for a couple of any gender--but they gracefully give Mamet's dialogue the crackle of an old Howard Hawks comedy. And they look great doing it.

Boston Marriage runs through March 12 at the Geffen Playhouse; The Good Body continues until March 19 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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