By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Plays by Rebecca Gilman should come with a warning label: "As seen in Ladies Home Journal." Gilman constructs heavy, overwritten dramas, including Boy Gets Girl, now onstage in Echo Theatre's production at the Bath House Cultural Center, and Spinning into Butter, done last season at Theatre Three, around some mushy "women's issue." Two-dimensional characters yammer on and on and on about the central topic. Long expository speeches every half-hour provide supporting facts and figures that prove how relevant it all is. Forget plot, suspense or getting a believable main character from point A to B. In Gilman's work, the goal is to whip up a state of high-pitched hysteria over matters handled better on Oprah. A Gilman play feels like two and a half hours of watching a jackhammer on Jell-O.
The issue in Boy Gets Girlis stalking. A know-it-all Manhattan magazine writer named Theresa (overemoted by the flinty Ellen Locy) rejects her blind date, Tony (Tim Demsky). A twitchy schlemiel in khaki Dockers, Tony refuses to go away nicely. What at first looks like his ardent, if desperate, wooing of Theresa rapidly escalates into 24-hour surveillance and obscene threats. With little legal recourse, Theresa is forced to change her name, job and address to get away from the guy.
That's the play. It's also half the movies on Lifetime and Oxygen. Picture Brooke Shields as the pretty, pantsuit-wearing stalkee and Richard Thomas as the sweaty date from hell. Follow the movie with a dour public service announcement asking viewers to support some reactionary legislation making sending a woman too many e-mails a death-penalty offense. Then, a commercial for Match.com.
If only Gilman's plays were as wickedly entertaining as those Lifetime sob stories. For the life of her, Gilman can't type decent plots or make characters sound like living, breathing human beings. For Boy Gets Girl, her idea of authentic conversation is to have Theresa and the stick figures around her end a lot of sentences with "...or whatever."
Gilman's most egregious error is depicting Theresa as a thoroughly unlikable smart-ass. As the focus of the play, someone the audience should muster up some empathy for as she's stalked into seclusion, Theresa comes off as the uppity sorority sister everybody thinks is a snotty shrew. She's rude and thoughtless to everyone around her, but blithely expects friends and co-workers (well played by John S. Davies, Regan Adair and Leslie Patrick) to rally to her aid to help fend off the oily Tony.
Theresa's dialogue is written like $500 answers on Jeopardy, full of tossed-off references to Ernie Pyle, Edith Wharton and the early-20th-century author William Dean Howells. But wait a minute. Maybe playwright Gilman isn't as smart as she thinks she is. She has Theresa talk about all the "articles" she's written for the magazine. Hit the buzzer, Alex. Real journos call them "stories," "pieces" or "assignments." Small detail probably, but one that spoils any pretense of authenticity.
In Boy Gets Girl, the only halfway believable, warm and sympathetic character is, ironically, an aging Russ Meyer-like soft-porn producer named Les (beautifully played by Grant James, with and without toupee). When Theresa shows up to interview him for a profile she doesn't want to write, she brazenly insults a man who's spent a career worshiping women. Les sizes her up as a neurotic feminist and puts her in her place. "You are so depressing, you kill a joke before it hits the air," he says.
When Les benignly suggests continuing their chat at a nearby bar where the Yankees are on the tube, Theresa, an avowed Yankee fan, recoils like he's asked her to strip naked and dance on his lap. No wonder this woman's reduced to fix-up dates. She sees all men as dangerous predators. "Normal male heterosexual behavior is somewhat psychotic," she says.
If a male playwright had written about women with as much contempt and reduction to stereotypes as the award-winning Gilman writes about men in Boy Gets Girl, there would be protests and boycotts. But the current trend toward man-bashing in new works for the stage continues with little critical call to arms. Maybe it's like that line from "The Cellblock Tango" in Chicago: "They had it coming." Or whatever.
A New Brain parallels the real-life medical saga of the show's composer and lyricist, William Finn (rhymes with Schwinn, see?). In 1992, three days after winning Tonys for March of the Falsettos (with writing partner James Lapine), Finn was diagnosed with a brain tumor and nearly died. He lived through surgery and recovered. In 1998 he turned the harrowing experience into a musical.
Written in sung-through pop-operatic form, A New Brain bounces with tunes that are pleasant but not memorable. Finn's lyrics run closer to doggerel than poetry. He rhymes "doozy" with "Cruise-y" and "Uzi." He picks the most obvious two-syllable rhyme for "Nantucket." And in a song about a horse race, Gordon's mother (Pam Peadon) and the nurses sing, "And they move in a herd/Like a four-letter word." What the heck does that mean?
In this production, directed by Regis Allison, every song ends up being belted full out like a showstopper. If only the cast of 10 good singers weren't outfitted with body mikes that amplify their voices to deafening levels. Their theater space is intimate enough to do their voices justice without the electronic boost.
The strength of this show is the Uptown cast. Fowler looks pretty, sings well and doesn't overact as Gordon. Kyle Douglas Miller, playing Gordon's lover Roger, makes the most of an underwritten part and has an easy touch with his big song, "I'd Rather Be Sailing." As the pushy mother, Peadon gives a torchy oomph to her ballad, "The Music Still Plays On," which sounds a little bit like Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music.
If, like his namesake in A New Brain, composer Finn aspires to be the next Stephen Sondheim, he's not there yet, in words or music. Well, maybe next year.