Last weekend's local theater debuts emphasized women: In the two shows that opened, seven of the eight members of the combined casts were female.
In "Five Women Wearing the Same Dress," the current offering of the Conejo Players' Conejo Afternoon Theatre, playwright Alan Ball, whose credits include the Academy Award-winning screenplay "American Beauty," takes his audience to a wedding reception in Tennessee. After the ceremony, five bridesmaids hide out from the rest of the guests. Yes, it's "Steel Magnolias" territory, with the women spilling their souls to each other. The main differences here are that the age range is narrower--early 20s to mid-30s--and nobody dies.
They're gathered in the bedroom of Meredith (Jennifer Jennings), the bride's sister and somewhat of a rebel: There's a poster of Malcolm X on her wall, she wears boots and smokes marijuana. Joining her are the naive Frances (Kelly Hare); the groom's ex, Georgeanne (Laura Pinner); Trisha (Katy Wright), who always seems to have a drink in her hand ("If I get to heaven and there isn't an open bar, God's going to have some explaining to do"); and Mindy (Maggie White), whose characteristics include an unusually active imagination.
You'll laugh quite a bit, judging from the reception by Sunday's audience, and Ball has inserted (with a sledgehammer, some might think) some serious moments as well. Aside from a couple of cheap shots at cliched targets--beauty pageants and Frances' fundamentalist Christianity-- that belie Ball's background as a writer of the sitcoms "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill," the script is witty and hangs together nicely. The last-minute intrusion of the show's lone male, Tripp Davenport (Tyler Wright), leads to one of the more unusual seduction scenes on record.
The play is the directorial debut for longtime Conejo Players member and current executive technical director Gary Robertson, who handles his actors with a strong payoff.
Please note that (mainly due to language) this play is not recommended for children or easily offended adults.
"Five Women Wearing the Same Dress" continues Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. through Sept. 23 at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. Tickets are $7 and may be purchased at the door only. For more information, call 495-3715.
In the other play that opened last week, one senses that the tragic spirit of author and poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-56) hangs heavy on Donald Margulies. An early Margulies play, "Luna Park," was based on a Schwartz short story, and his "Collected Stories," now playing at the Ojai Arts Center, features Schwartz, long dead as the play begins, as a sort of offstage character.
Ruth Steiner (Leslie Paxton), a prominent short-story-writer-turned-academic is approached by Lisa Morrison (Diana Chamberlain), an admiring student who works her way into Steiner's life . . . and, Steiner would charge, her very soul.
The play, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (which went to Margulies' "Dinner With Friends" this year), can be seen as somewhat autobiographical: Schwartz, Steiner and Margulies are all Jewish New Yorkers (a background that's important to their work); Steiner and Margulies, who teaches at Yale, are academics; and so on.
Without getting too deeply into the plot, it can be seen as, say, a grand-niece of "All About Eve," with its core conflict especially pertinent in the wake of recent autobiographies by the estranged daughter (Margaret A. Salinger) and former lover (Joyce Maynard) of famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger.
Even more than the story's intellectual conflict is the superior acting of Paxton (in a part played off-Broadway by Uta Hagen and at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. by Linda Lavin) and Chamberlain under Steve Grumette's direction. How superior? There's one passage of several minutes toward the end of Act 1, where not a word passes between the actresses and that's as eloquent as any of their speeches. Now, that's direction and acting.
"Collected Stories" continues Thursdays and Sundays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Sept. 30 at the Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St. in Ojai. Tickets for all shows are $12; $10, seniors and Arts Center members. For further information, call 640-8797.
In their third year as host of the annual competition, Ventura TheatreSports won the state championship awarded by an organization of improvisatory comedy groups. Tom Mueller, who was teamed with Judy Gottleib, Jeanie Hayes and Jim Kasmir, notes that this is the first time in the tournament's six-year history that a team not from Los Angeles or the Bay Area has won. Other chapters participating this year were Santa Maria, San Diego, Eureka and Stanford University.
Todd Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.