Titles and Tiaras

At CTD and Lewisville, two winning comedies reveal the ugly side of beauty pageants.

Honey Boo Boo, reality TV's hillbilly kiddie diva, has nothing on Puddles Johnson, a tiny titan in the world of glitzy tots with fake tans and snap-in flipper teeth. As Puddles and her adorable rival, Chevrolet Corningfield, battle it out to become "Miss Alabama Haystack" and "Miss Texas Twinkle," their pushy moms, Marge and Pinky, declare war on each other in Pageant Play. The one-act 2008 comedy by Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock runs one more weekend at Lewisville Grand Theater, staged by Our Productions Theatre and acted by a spunky four-person cast.

Meanwhile, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas takes a look back at the status of women in the 1950s with Mrs. California, a darker comedy about a pageant that has pretty housewives engaged in competitive apron sewing, shirt ironing and table setting. Points are deducted for unladylike behavior, so who's sabotaging Mrs. San Bernardino's oven?

Judged back to back, Mrs. California earns the awards for talent and congeniality, while Pageant Play walks off with the crown for meanest satire. They're both funny, lightweight scripts, best appreciated after marathon viewings of Toddlers & Tiaras, cable television's fascinating expose of suburban mothers determined to ruin their daughters' lives as early in childhood as possible.

Desperate housewives: Sherry Hopkins and Morgan McClure play 1950s hausfraus trying to win a homemaking pageant in the comedy Mrs. California at Contemporary Theatre.
George Wada
Desperate housewives: Sherry Hopkins and Morgan McClure play 1950s hausfraus trying to win a homemaking pageant in the comedy Mrs. California at Contemporary Theatre.

Details

Mrs. California

continues through October 7 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Call 214-828-0094.

Pageant Play

continues through Sunday at Lewisville Grand Theater, Lewisville. Call 972-724-2147.

Mrs. California, a 1986 play by Doris Baizley, weaves a subtle thread of nascent feminism through its storyline about Dot, a smart, young Los Angeles wife (played with nice comic snap by Sherry Hopkins) whose high-strung friend and neighbor Babs (spring-loaded Morgan McClure) has entered her in a televised "homemaking contest." Down to the final four, Dot's under pressure to win from her pageant coach and sponsor, Dudley (Ashley Wood). He's afraid the presence of boozy, flirty Babs will have a negative effect on Mrs. L.A.'s chances.

In short monologues that break up the 100-minute play, we see what Dot is up against. When sophisticated Mrs. San Francisco (Jennifer Obeney, striking marvelous poses) practices her "proudest moment" speech, we learn she used to have a business career. But marriage and children took her away from all that, which she tries, unconvincingly, to make sound like a positive thing. Her smile is as frozen as her prize-winning "ice angel" dessert.

Mrs. San Bernardino (Amanda Carson Green) has a cheerfully ruthless approach to the contest, copying Dot's chocolate cake recipe and delivering a syrupy soliloquy about the joys of serving as a Cub Scouts den mother. Funny how her eyes keep sending different messages about just how stultifying she finds the practice of the home arts.

The late Helen Gurley Brown coined a word for women like mother-of-seven Mrs. Modesto (a charmingly goofy Erin McGrew). They were "mouseburgers," drab little creatures with no sense of glamour or style. But there's something to admire in how gracefully this one accepts failure, showing up in a clown costume when the other three finalists are in chic cinch-waist dresses poofed up by petticoats. (Costumes and hairstyles by Kaori Imai are right out of I Love Lucy. Scenery by Rodney Dobbs dresses the stage in side-by-side kitchen counters painted in the tasty pastels of Necco wafers.)

The first act's madcap silliness (paced artfully by director Robin Armstrong) slows to a more somber tone in the second act when Baizley's script has Babs suddenly turn into Paula Prentiss from The Stepford Wives. Why, she asks during a raging meltdown, should she be happy tucked away in her "dream house" doing nothing but cooking and cleaning? In World War II, Dot and Babs were riveting Rosies, building planes for the Navy and directing convoys by radio. Now the men have those jobs back and Babs is frustrated. She wants more out of life and doesn't understand why Dot's happy behind an apron and a frying pan.

Who wins the DeSoto LaSalle sedan and the title of Mrs. California comes as a pleasant surprise at the end of the evening. It's not the one you think will take it. But in 1955, remember, Mamie Eisenhower was First Lady. Talk about a mouseburger.


Pageant Play starts with this question from pageant coach Bobby: "Who here has an ugly child?" Bobby (Ryan Roach) and his partner Bob (Chris Robinson) make a living teaching "finesse" to toddler girls out to accrue the crowns, sashes, cash and rifles offered by children's beauty pageants in the Deep South.

Their best customer is Pinky Corningfield (Andi Allen), spending thousands to send her daughter Chevrolet ("it's French for goatlike. Like a goat," she explains) down pageant runways in sequin-covered frocks. When a newcomer named Puddles Johnson starts winning, Pinky plots with Bobby and Bob to destroy the pert little parvenu. What they don't know is that Puddles' rough-hewn mom Marge (Staci Ingram) has a deep, dark secret that could spoil her kid's winning streak. And it's not just that her daddy's in prison.

Director Lisa Devine lets her actors go big and broad, which adds oomph to a script that sometimes sags under gags that go on too long. Roach and Robinson, already a tight comedy duo from many performances together in the Greater Tuna oeuvre, have impeccable timing here, as does Andi Allen, giving her Pinky character some of Carol Burnett's wacky vocal growls and piercing looks.

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