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The Women's Theatre Festival continued to demonstrate a high level of casting and production values in its third annual summer season's second show, Parallel Lives, by Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy, presented at Burning Coal Theatre. Two accomplished actors and fine technical support brought on a lot of laughs and some moving moments in a collection of sketches covering topics from sex and religion to family relationships and women's empowerment.
The script's authors have been big names in TV and film for three decades and are known for their human rights activism. They first worked in improvisational comedy and then put together sketch shows in the mid-1980s, leading to the 1989 off-Broadway run of The Kathy and Mo Show: Parallel Lives.
The Women's Theatre Festival production has updated some sketches with more topical references, including cellphones. The script's best segments are those with timeless situations, but a certain number are dated by a three-decades-earlier social mindset and by reliance on too-familiar comic situations. Still, that didn't prevent the production from providing funny and clever entertainment.
Director Judy Long allowed Emily Levinstone and Jeri Keith Liles to perform comfortably within the styles of Najimy and Gaffney, respectively, but never in full imitation. The pair showed off their acting chops, playing 30 different characters in a dozen sketches during two one-hour acts.
Both acts had great sketches and near failures, with the first act being the more successful. It began with a conversation between two winged supreme beings (aloft at the top of the set's back wall) deciding how to set up humans in the beginning. The casual chat was hilarious in its choices of skin colors and who would bear the children. That was followed by a sketch about a seemingly air-headed, self-centered college student on a date (Levinstone) with a "cool" guy (Liles) at a restaurant that tried to make a point about the woman's higher sensibilities when a disturbing situation arose, but the set-up took too long.
A tightly written, five-minute sketch got the audience rollicking with its unflinching send-up of sensitivity about publicity discussing women's menstruation, which included Liles' earthy commercial for "staying fresh" and the actors' perfect portrayals of how two guys would talk if they were the ones needing the product. The pair also believably channeled two 17-year-olds' amusing reactions to West Side Story on TV, as they tried relating the story to their own lives. But then the temperature lowered with an unsuccessful piece pitting a self-adoring trophy wife (Levinstone) with a prostitute (Liles) that went nowhere once the premise was set.
Happily, the act's last two sketches were worth the price of admission. First was a multi-part scenario about three sisters greeting well-wishers after their grandmother's funeral. Levinstone played Lizzie, the perky one who stayed home, with Liles as Marla, who was flying out with the grandmother's ashes. There was a lot of funny business about too many tuna casseroles and relatives they didn't like. But when new age-y Karen arrived (also Levinstone), things took an emotionally dramatic turn as she and Marla shared awkward attempts to like each other under the circumstances. Direction and acting were precisely tuned.
Act I ended on a wonderful high in a three-part segment. The actors started out as sixty-ish New York ladies who signed up for women's liberation courses and were out to eat at a vegetarian restaurant with a lesbian performance to come. Although the first segment about ordering their food had sitcom humor, the second, during which Levinstone's character related discovering the love life of her charming favorite nephew, was beautifully written and performed. And the performance piece, in which both actors sang and recited about empowerment, was hilarious and rousing.
Act II was decidedly less well written and, in some cases, less well rehearsed. The opening reprised the two New York ladies with predictable, not-funny situations. The second, eight-part sequence wanted to be an exploration of young Catholic girls as they went from immersion in the religion to eventually drifting from it. But the sketch was another premise that couldn't hold up under its length and repetitiveness.
Liles made a great silent comic in the next sketch about a woman's daily preparation, from showering to spraying hair, but its humor depended on a stereotype that was old-fashioned when the show was written. The brief skit following was an easy send-up of Shakespearean acting, which contained the single funniest visual joke (not to be revealed here) in recent memory – a true show-stopper.
From there it was a downhill slide, with another sitcom-type setup of a married couple in bed, waking up and turning on lights over and over to discuss jealousies and slights. Unfortunately, the last full sketch was the least funny of all, in which Levinstone played an overzealous cowboy lothario to Liles' lonely barfly. It had the longest setup for a single joke I've witnessed in a long time. The short return to the supreme beings did not compensate for the general letdown feeling for the second act.
Director Judy Long had well-planned staging, except for a penchant of having the cast face audience left too often. Her sound design also enhanced the scenes, from church bells to crickets. Mac McCord's set was pleasingly minimalist yet functional, while Judy McCord's props and costume designs were similar. Lisa Suzanne's lighting helped define different locales, although opening night had a number of late cues that cause some momentary confusion.
It's understandable why the Women's Theatre Festival would choose this script, and, despite its flaws and dated material, it's still a crowd-pleaser and a good showcase for cast and creative team.
Parallel Lives continues through Saturday, June 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.