SAN DIEGO — They call their production "Parallel Lives," but don't let that fool you. The real theme of the "Kathy & Mo Show," playing through Nov. 8 at the Old Globe Theatre, is that you can do anything you want.
And one thing Kathy Najimy and Maureen (Mo) Gaffney want to do, clearly, is stalk comedy in unexpected places. In about a dozen comic segments, some of which melt into each other, these native San Diegans reprise their off-Broadway hit for local audiences. Armed with two chairs, two stools and a bare stage, they rag in one segment on the food brought to a wake (as two sisters roll their eyes at yet another tuna casserole) and conjure, in another, a seriously sidesplitting feminist poetry recital ("We all live in the great uterus of womanhood/My period. Your period. Let it flow!")
But it is not really their range of characters that stands out; it's the depth of their portrayals. For what makes Najimy and Gaffney different from most comics is that while most will do anything they can to score a joke, this team will use any joke they can to bring home a message, such as the right to be gay. Or to have an abortion. Or to be a little girl wanting to be a priest.
It's an "I'm O.K., you're wonderful" kind of show, to steal one of their eminently poachable lines. "You don't have to have lids for your Tupperware," says Najimy in one brief monologue that sounds suspiciously like a pep talk. "You don't have to know your season. You don't have to be thin enough."
When it works, which is most of the time, wonderful is an understatement. But just as showing is better than telling, the pep talk is not nearly as effective as the piece where the slender Gaffney eloquently mimes an elaborate and evidently painful sequence of tweezing, squeezing, plucking and waxing all to the tune of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are."
And for poignancy and gentle humor, it's hard to top Najimy's robust Maddy, an elderly fur-clad Jewish matron who discovers her favorite nephew is gay. At first her mouth hangs open. She won't lie to him. "It's going to take me a while to get used to it." Then she shrugs and pulls herself together. "If I could get used to the microwave oven, I can get used to you being a homosexual."
They are at their best when deep in character, working off each other and invisible third people (who seem to be located smack in the middle of the audience). The two, so different in style (Najimy leans to the smiling innocent and Gaffney the cynic) are, appropriately, masters of the culture clash. One of the best examples of this is the segment in which Maddy and her best friend, Syvvie, anxious to fit in with their new women's studies group, try to find the beef in the decidedly foreign territory of a feminist vegetarian coffee shop. "No BLTs?" says Syvvie, thrown for a moment. "O.K., hold the B."
Equally successful, but in a darker key, is the bar scene in which the married cowboy (Najimy with a cigarette dangling perpendicular from her mouth) makes his nightly proposal to the tired, working, single mother (Gaffney) who gets dangerously drunker and drunker until she decides, to the man's horror, to accept.
Unfortunately, at times, their strength becomes a weakness as they weigh their pieces down with moral vitamin shots. The effect is sort of like sticking extra grains in the bread after it has been baked.
In a piece about a frat boy and his date, for example, they start strongly with a portrait of a nervously giggling, eager-to-please co-ed (Najimy) who is so deferential that she whispers her order to her boyfriend (Gaffney) so that he can tell it to the waitress. Then, instead of staying on their dynamic--which has a lot to say just by itself--they have the girl notice that the gay couples in the restaurant are being treated shabbily. This so disturbs her that she summons up her courage to complain to the waitress about it.
This vignette and a few others (including one about a gay pianist making predictably bitter remarks about AIDS) makes one wish that these two gifted writers and performers would trust their characters to speak for themselves, instead of using them as moral mouthpieces. After all, the strongest messages are the ones that rise up naturally like cream to the surface.
And there's plenty of cream here to go around. The show, nicely lit by Brett Kelly, with appropriate pop music orchestrated by Adam Wartnik, is clearly a sign of larger things to come for this witty and wonderful duo. So see "The Kathy & Mo Show" while you can still afford it. And take a friend. "THE KATHY & MO SHOW: PARALLEL LIVES"
Written and performed by Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. Sound by Adam Wartnik. Lighting by Brett Kelly. Stage manager is Jennifer Shaw. At 8 p.m. Wednesday--Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 8. At the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, San Diego.