Women run the show in these very funny plays, which start from a place of “couldn’t get worse” but deliver tenderness and easy laughs. Three of them are on Puget Sound-area stages through April 2.
What bewilders you?
How older women really do seem to just stop mattering. I’m sure not everywhere, but where I live they do.
— Comedy writer-actor Lauren Weedman, in a February 2023 interview with NWTheatre
In an interview before her solo show last month, Lauren Weedman said something that stuck with me. It was a sliver that didn’t land in the confines of the 5 Questions format, but a sharp point I knew would resurface later: while men can be timeless, whether in stage and screen roles or otherwise, women pass some magic number and all but disappear.
An accomplished writer and actor, Weedman’s newest show — the self-deprecatingly, suggestively, or combustibly (depending how you look at it) titled Lauren Weedman BLOWS — is a refusal to be irrelevant. Where other performances are characters, in scripted TV favorites or her own character-driven solo shows, this one is all her: a woman who’s dumped the luggage of her cheating ex at the door, has her own life and opinions to own, a deep well of talent (Weedman is joined on stage by a band, but much of the music is driven by her own guitar), and a seemingly inexhaustible bundle of energy. Lauren Weedman BLOWS is a testament of vigor.
Its two-day premiere in Seattle is, alas, long over, but Los Angeles audiences can catch it this Tuesday; presumably more dates will follow.
* * *
Just in time to round out Women’s History Month or get a guffaw in for April Fools’ Day, three Seattle-adjacent stages unpack the phenomenon Weedman confronted, these ones using fictional characters with a heavy dose of humor, too. Convinced they’d be driven into obscurity without taking drastic measures, each uses different tactics to stave off rejection.
In Skin Deep at Poulsbo’s tiny Jewel Box Theatre, Sheila Whiting clutches after beauty in her more senior years, convinced her flirtatious, career-driven, and obsessively athletic husband, “Squire, Esquire” (Jeff Brown), would move on to the next thing otherwise. Meanwhile, her perennially single sister Maureen Mulligan, on whom the emotional core of the play centers, has taken the opposite approach: so afraid of rejection, she refuses to build any relationships beyond delivery menus and a freezer full of ice cream (both the real stuff and the tofu guilt edition). But her walls get a good shake when she’s set up on a date with the hapless Joseph Spinelli — with whom she hits it off instantly.
Playing out almost entirely in Maureen’s living room, in various stages of tidy and takeout-strewn, Jewel Box’s Skin Deep is a comedy full of tenderness. The script itself, by Jon Lonoff, teems with great one-liners but has kind of a “Silly woman …” undertone to it, as one sister is obsessed with plastic surgery that no one (in so many words) asked her to get, and the other is convinced she’s never good enough for anyone, despite all the signs to the contrary (and due in large part to her own self-sabotage). But what they’ve done with it here is really lovely. Under direction of Artistic Director Michelle Peterson, actors Kim Hart (Maureen) and Casey Cline (Joe) have a rapport that’s endearing in its mix of bumbling and wit. While their characters are forcing themselves out on a limb toward each other, the acting of them never feels forced. Meanwhile, the barbs traded at the top of the show between sisters (Hart as Maureen and Sandi Spellman as Sheila) are a pointed delight, contrasting with the tentative tenderness between Joe and Maureen that sets the tone for much of the rest of the show.
A preview of this production caught my eye at the Kaleidoscope community theatre festival last month, and I’m glad it did. Like Maureen and Joe, Jewel Box’s Skin Deep deserves a good shot at love.
Back on this side of the Sound, in Kenmore there’s no love lost as two divas wrestle with sustained success — and eventually each other. With direction by Artistic Director Cindy Giese French, the farce Suite Surrender continues As If Theatre Company’s knack for putting on humor-filled, ensemble-driven plays with a hint of mystery.
In this 1940s-set farce by Michael McKeever, the staff of an upscale Palm Beach hotel rallies around the war efforts, supporting the troops in a fundraising blowout while hoping the guests don’t have a blowout of their own first. The soiree’s main champion is plastered, the bellhops are put through increasingly impossible demands, sailors are leaping off their balconies into the pool, and — most dangerous of all — someone has booked two warring divas into the same suite.
To the Machiavellian inquiry, Is it better to be loved or feared?, these two headline-grabbers take opposite approaches: Athena Sinclair (Molly Hall) is keen to be loved by all, any which way she can, while Claudia McFadden (Merry Senn) is famously domineering, scattering the help like mice. And though a common cause has brought them both to the hotel, the two have built their tabloid reputations on loathing each other. So while they preen in their quarters, separated only by a sitting room but unaware of each other’s presence, the rest of the ensemble scurries around to ensure they stay that way.
It’s classic farce — with the slamming doors, near misses, and laughable misfires you’d expect — and under those demands this ensemble holds up solidly. Among them, Chris Clark is a compellingly frazzled and frayed assistant, Emmanual Suarez is a particularly earnest bellhop, and As If mainstay Terry Boyd lands a role he was seemingly born to play. As the self-appointed belle of the ball, Jennifer Nielsen is a scene-stealer, a deliciously persistent drunkard of high society.
As the diva Sinclair, Hall is divine, playing her with a carefree breeziness that could come only with knowing you’re the queen of everything. Senn plays a superbly fraught rival in McFadden who, though seemingly more successful than Sinclair, is also decidedly less confident (if a heavy-handed desperation for control says anything). Strangely, in this production just about the only thing that doesn’t work is the grand finale between these two, which just doesn’t land as naturally as the situation demands: too cognizant of the performance, perhaps; too choreographed; and frankly just too long, which shows up also in the longer-than-stated runtime.
It’s the twist at the end, which I won’t spoil for you, that turns this one into a bit of a think piece. What will we do to maintain our relevance? The women driving the show in Suite Surrender make that question a very fun and funny journey.
Finally, in the South Sound we find an even more absurdist setup: an architecture firm, floundering for money and desperate to get some bids out, accidentally hires the mob to build a retirement home. For cops. Obviously, for this well-connected crime family, this job’s gleefully personal.
Set in the 1930s and featuring door-slamming, double-crossing, and groan-inducing double-entendres, Building Madness is a farce for the ages. The locally based Kate Danley, an award-winning and prolific novelist and playwright, has managed to capture a classic, timeless feel with a modern wit, and whose women are much smarter than theatrical devices.
Whatever the men think of the business structure, it’s clear the women run the show. Staged here with Scott Nolte’s direction at the Olympia-based Harlequin Productions, Danley’s work has a clever sense of strong women, coaxing power out of three very different characters: the in-control mob boss (Angela DiMarco), the project-running professional (Helen Harvester), and, most unlikely, the charismatic air-headed secretary (Emma Brown Baker).
This is a story of playing to strengths, and while the men are focused on compartmentalized competition in business (e.g., he just does the gargoyles, I do the buildings), or getting out from under the business-founding father’s shadow, the women have much more strategic approaches.
Harlequin does farce well, and it’s hard to imagine a better place to give this smart screwball comedy its professional debut. The ensemble is strong, pacing is crisp, costumes are sharp (design by Melanie Ransom). Resident scenic designer Jeannie Beirne knows how to work the stage, and it shows here in the lush set.
It’s tough to say more about the women’s strengths without revealing too much, so I’ll leave it with what you need to know: This is farce-meets-mastermind, and Harlequin’s clear-headed production is just the right way to show it off.
* * *
The women in these shows, especially those who are of a certain age, have been plenty-told what they should be. Maureen Mulligan should take up less space. Her sister should get another face lift. Two divas should be toppling one another. Women in the workplace should be satisfied supporting the men’s pursuits. And Weedman herself should be less intense. More agreeable. And satisfied with telling other people’s stories.
Lucky for us, these characters don’t stick with their scripts.
Skin Deep performs through 4/2 at the Jewel Box Theatre in Poulsbo. Runs 1 hour 40 minutes with intermission. Tickets and info here.
Suite Surrender performs through 4/2 at As If Theatre Company in Kenmore. Runs 1 hour 40 minutes without intermission. Tickets and info here.
Building Madness performs through 4/2 at Harlequin Productions in Olympia. Runs 2 hours with intermission. Tickets and info here. Pay-what-you-choose tickets on Thursday night (3/30).
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.