KPBS AIRDATE: May 19, 1993
When women playwrights point their pens at fellow females, it doesn’t always paint a pretty picture. And when the characters in comedies are drawn — or played — in cartoonish fashion, we get only shallow laughs and no more depth and satisfaction than we derive from the Sunday comics — even if heavy subjects are penciled in among the garish colors. All this in the hands of neophyte playwrights spells trouble. Right here in River City.
The current premiere at the Old Globe is a play in progress, at best, and I’m not sure it’ll ever get where it’s going, which is to say “Out of Purgatory,” the title of the piece by Carol Galligan. It’s about a cute but mousy Catholic married to a macho, abusive Israeli, who says things would be better for them if they were “married Jewish” instead of just legal. So she sets out to convert. She does battle with her monstrous Italian mother, and seeks solace from a nice orthodox Rabbi. So we’ve got three stock characters — two total horrors and one angel who’s got “Mr. Ultimate Nurturing Nice-Guy” written all over his yarmulke. And one lost soul in the middle. We don’t actually know or understand or feel for any of these characters. They’re all drawn in black and white, and there’s no dimensionality to any of them.
That’s a dramatic problem. And maybe it’s excusable for a new playwright. But what’s not excusable is for that playwright to be a psychoanalyst who spotlights child abuse and spouse abuse and neither provides any rationale for them in the play nor any insight into them for the audience. Shallowness abounds in this production, although everybody involved seems to be working very earnestly to dredge something meaningful out of the morass.
Even the costuming leaves something to be desired. Why, for example, does conversion to Judaism mean turning a cute, sexy blonde, into a frumpy, dumpy brunette in maternity-shaped clothes and a raggy babushka?
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who comes by it naturally, also seems to favor frumpy Jewish women. And she loves to juxtapose them with picture-perfect shiksas.
Up at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, once again in association with the Pasadena Playhouse, we get “Isn’t It Romantic?” a kind of warm-up exercise written in 1979, a decade before Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Heidi Chronicles.” More Jewish-Gentile Ivy League angst. Paler than “Heidi,” whinier, less funny, more flawed, “Isn’t It Romantic?” tells the story of Janie Blumberg, the frumpy one, and her best friend Harriet Cornwall, the wispy/WASPy one.
Both have independent mothers who don’t understand them and jerky boyfriends who don’t deserve them. So what else is new? Accepting that life can be fine without a man always seems to come with a sad sigh of resignation in a Wasserstein play, though it’s barely audible. Wendy, like her characters Heidi and Janie, seems to be in her own private purgatory about having and wanting it all — a husband, a baby, a career and peace of mind to enjoy it. The characters in “Romantic” are less fleshed out than her later ones. We don’t come away satisfied. And the cartoonish proscenium pictures and sitcom production don’t help.
Now, as a relationship postscript, there’s one production in town that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: “Personals,” at the Theatre in Old Town: a light, humorous musical romp through the search-and-destroy mission of finding a mate through personals ads. Fresh from an Off-Broadway success, it’s lively, clever, well-performed and directed, and even unpredictable at times, despite treading on over-trod turf. There’s plenty to identify with, but no heavy issues picked up and then dropped somewhere offstage. It’s a WYSIWYG kind of play, to borrow from computer techno-talk. That means, What You See Is What You Get, and sometimes, that’s downright refreshing.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.