In Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, Bridesmaids From Hell Heat Up Contemporary Theatre
In their shiny bridesmaids' gowns, the title characters in Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' fun, frothy comedy Five Women Wearing the Same Dress resemble bright dollops of strawberry sherbet. Plopped on their heads are matching hats, shaped like the top tiers of a wedding cake. Across their bosoms and backsides are spread enormous bows in the same fabric, making the total effect by costume designer Annell Brodeu a visual assault of shocking pink-on-pink-on-pink.
We meet the ladies as they toddle one by one into the bedroom of the younger sister of the bride after a high society wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee. Waiting for the reception to commence on the lawn, the bridesmaids have sneaked upstairs to retouch lip gloss, remove dyed-to-match high heels and take a quick toke to help dull the day's edge. All of them, it turns out, have some personal history with the groom, a charming but nasty predator named Tommy Valentine.
"Something about this dress makes me feel like Bigfoot," says bridesmaid Mindy (Catherine Wall), the groom's outspoken, out-lesbian older sister. Her fellow attendants are the bride's bitter sibling Meredith (Catherine DuBord); tightly wound, hard-drinking pal Georgeanne (Barrett Nash); world-weary Trisha (Emily Scott Banks); and 21-year-old Frances (Heather Sims), who answers every tempting offer of drink or smoke with "I can't—I'm a Christian."
Alan Ball wrote this play around 1990, almost a decade before winning his screenplay Oscar for American Beauty and, later, becoming the critics' darling as creator/writer of the HBO series Six Feet Under and True Blood. If the quips and drawls of Five Women bring to mind Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias, consider that the latter was still running in its Broadway debut when Ball was probably typing his play about mouthy Southern women.
Now 20 years old, Five Women feels less dated than Harling's play and is line-for-line funnier and bitchier. Also, nobody dies. Always nice in a comedy.
Five Women is a good fit at Contemporary Theatre, the woman-friendly stage that has produced Steel Magnolias twice in six years. Director Susan Sargeant, whose own Wingspan Theatre specializes in works by, for and about women, has assembled a particularly strong quintet of actresses (and one good actor).
The ladies go at Ball's rapid-fire dialogue like hungry girls on a buffet. "It's like the bland leading the bland out there," says DuBord's character, remarking on the reception line going on without her (that's a Harling-esque phrase if there ever was one). Georgeanne, played with delightful bursts of comic mania by redheaded Barrett Nash, says this after recounting her tawdry history with men: "I may be a bitch and I may be a slut, but I do have some standards."
Each actress gets her moment to break out and break down in Five Women. As they get drunker on purloined Champagne, they fall into raw confessions about abortion, drug use, loveless marriages, illicit sexual encounters and one sad story about child abuse. But there is more comedy than drama, with lots of laughs cued from Sargeant's clever choreography of the women, their enormous dresses and progressively droopy hairdos.
Banks, who acts in shows at WaterTower Theatre, makes her CTD debut as Trisha, the most cynical of the bridesmaids, and it's her solid performance that most grounds the production in reality. After a hearty round of man-bashing at the end of act two, she's left alone in the bedroom with Tripp (Will Christoferson), who pops up late in the action as the only groomsman who isn't "a piece of wet toast." Their flirtatious back-and-forth feels like it belongs in some other more sophisticated comedy—an updated version of Noel Coward's Private Lives perhaps—but the actors underplay it, making the scene a palatable, upbeat ending to the evening. That Christoferson's a handsome devil in a slick tuxedo, well, that's just extra icing on the big pink wedding cake.
Not many giggles in Dying City, the last show of Second Thought Theatre's current season in Addison. Dallas Theater Center company member Lee Trull makes his directing debut with this 70-minute 2007 drama by Christopher Shinn.
Strange little piece, intense and unsettling, but in the good way of well-written contemporary plays. Kelly, a New York City therapist played by Dallas theater newcomer Grace Heid, receives a late-night visitor, her late husband Craig's identical twin Peter, played by Rhett Henckel. Peter's an actor, gay and chatty. He hasn't seen Kelly in the year since Craig, a soldier, was killed in Iraq. Why has she been so distant? And by the way, would she like to read all the emails Craig sent to Peter while he was in combat?
In scenes that shift forward and back in time, Henckel portrays both brothers. That sounds gimmicky, but Henckel makes the transitions subtle. Because the setting—Kelly's beige sofa—stays the same throughout, it takes a couple scenes to suss out what's happening and when.
Gradually we get facts about who went to Harvard and what sort of therapy Kelly practices (one of her patients is nicknamed "Fuckedhersohardshe," if that's an indication). Flashbacks fill in painful truths about Kelly and Craig's marriage and why he poured his heart out via email to Peter and not to his wife.
Director Trull and his actors handle Dying City with exquisite care. Heid and Henckel excel at the style of natural, unfussy acting that Second Thought has rediscovered in their three-show comeback season this year. They're back in a groove, this bunch. Can't wait to see what they do next.
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