Even if the title of the new show at the Tiffany Theatre is "Growing Gracefully" and the subtitle "The Middle Ages of Women," one's first response to the combination is one of inner dread.
Is this, one wonders, going to be another euphemistic smoke screen for what it's like to grow older in a society that looks with such wretched unkindness on age? And to add injury to this insult, what can one expect from five actresses meting this out in monologues?
Plenty, thanks to a combination of uncommon factors. Consider first the material provided by author Meredith Cofren (a.k.a. Mary Fritts), which bears more than a few connections to that of another monologue specialist writing under the nom de plume Jane Martin.
Cofren's monologues are not great literature, but they are skillfully knowing dissections of a variety of slice-of-life situations, well-timed, with surprising twists and a certain emotional eloquence.
Secondly, consider the actresses. They are, in alphabetical order, Linda Carlson, Mary Pat Gleason, Ann Guilbert, Elaine Joyce and Joanna Miles--an eclectic assortment, in various stages of their "Middle Ages" (early for many) and offering a wide variety of tone, versatility and presentation of self.
The monologues--about 15 altogether--run an even wider gamut from such pedestrian situations as the two older friends who meet for some dishing and daiquiris at a trendy restaurant (Guilbert) or the divorcee who finds out by sheer luck that a fling with a dancin' playmate in Las Vegas beats living in a bad marriage (Joyce), to the acid retorts of the movie star on the skids (Carlson) who is interviewed by a star-struck reporter and decides to give the timid Midwesterner a zinging Hollywood earful.
This last is the evening's most brazen and spectacular turn. In between, there are quieter but deft solo spins, such as the mother who finds her own way of getting even with the guy who molested her daughter when the law won't help (Miles), the stolid nurse's aide who puts her stroke-ravaged mother out of her misery (Joyce) and the grandmother who decides to connect with her computer-whiz grandson by learning his terminalogy--and almost outdoes him (Miles again, who needs to watch an overly labored accent).
The two most sustained events of the evening, however, are Guilbert's portrayal of Alexandra, an iconoclastic senior congresswoman who has grown worldly wise and comfortable in the role--and Mary Pat Gleason's Edith, a night-shift truck-stop waitress with a big mouth and a head for crises.
It would be unfair to reveal too much of chatty Edith's "Last Customer," but it will amuse and surprise. (Gleason is a no-nonsense Irish lass who earlier delivers the O. Henry-ish confession of a woman who is offered a small fortune for the land on which sits her decrepit little house--and who knows just what to do with herself and the money when friends and family start closing in.)
Guilbert's lawyer-congresswoman, on the other hand, is all smooth edges and urbane reflection, beginning with her zesty self-description as the thin, caring, liberal Republican daughter of fat, uncaring, conservative Democratic parents. ("I became an orphan at 52," she says with a sigh. "What a relief!")
Director Robert Engels keeps the momentum going by mixing and matching discourses in elegant ways. Alexandra, interviewed for what seems like a definitive oral history or in-depth article, addresses several points (many agreeably arch and concise), presenting each as a complete thought wrapped as an episode.
The same applies to Gleason's Edith, whose long night at the truck-stop cafe is cinematically intercut by other monologues.
If the women had merely delivered the monologues in more or less alternating order, the effect might have been acceptable but considerably less. The show is presented on assorted risers set against an attractive, generic, fan-like design by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio that adorns most of the back wall.
Showcase this may be, but classy showcase by performers who know just what to do with Cofren's better-than-average material. Simplicity is the key, variety the byword.
If "Growing Gracefully" doesn't entirely break free of its gentility or the restrictions imposed by its format, it does do what it set out to do with imagination and, yes, gracefully. That adverb in the title is earned.
At the Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $17-$20; (213) 652-6165).