Murder, they typed at the Margo Jones; The Dog Problem's got problems at Undermain; and how to succeed in preschool at Circle Theater
What are you up for? A play about a guy who shoots a dog? A play about yuppie parents who poison a lady with pesto? How about a comedy with typists who murder lumberjacks to score men's better-made outerwear?
Let's start with the most entertaining one (by far), The Secretaries, a subversive piece of bloody good folderol running in repertory with two other plays at Southern Methodist University's black box space, the Margo Jones Theatre. Directed with snap and polish by SMU theater prof James Crawford and acted by a snazzy all-girl student cast, The Secretaries feels dangerous, in a fun way, as it spins out its homicidal fantasy about a cult-like group of women workers welcoming a newbie into the office and seducing her into their nefarious off-hours activities.
The tone is John Waters meets Twin Peaks as the ladies of the typing pool of Cooney Lumber, Big Bone, Oregon, go about their daily rituals. These include sharing diet tips (they religiously adhere to an all-Slimfast menu), synchronizing menstrual periods and kowtowing to an Amazonian office manager, Miss Curtis (Yevgeniya Kats, slinking across the stage like a redheaded Arianna Huffington). Seated at pine laptops, newcomer Patty (Rachel Werline), nervous Ashley (Lauren Birdwell), madly cheerful Dawn (Meredith Alloway) and people-pleaser Peaches (Alexandra Vernon) tippy-tap on their keyboards in perfect unison. Their conversations are fast and familiar with talk of boyfriends named Woody and Chip, before their words devolve into birdlike chirps and clicks—a mysterious language that's not among the five that overeducated Patty speaks fluently.
Like the 30 Rock in which Liz is crushed to discover her new group of laid-back lady friends is secretly a fight club, The Secretaries reveals its dark joke to Patty (and us) as a whammy upside the head. By day the women handle their office duties with brusque efficiency. By night they meet in the woods to cavort in lingerie and do unseemly things (there's something with tampons that's gross but hilarious). Every 29 days they choose one lumberjack to die in an "accident" with a buzz saw. The reward is the dead man's Pendleton plaid wool jacket. "Men's clothes are better made than women's," Miss Curtis coolly explains, "and usually half as expensive."
She's right, you know. The Secretaries, written by a collective of women playwrights who call themselves the Five Lesbian Brothers, has lots of truths to impart about gender inequities. (The one male character in it is played by actress Lila Joy Ginsburg, which is commentary, too.) But it's not just man-bashing going on. The play also aims a smart junk-punch at the rotten way women in work settings often betray each other with jealousy and personal sniping. Ashamed that she craves solid food, plus-sized Peaches begs Patty to slap her any time she slips off Slimfast and gobbles something calorie-laden. The actresses in the SMU production carry off the comic violence of these moments with excellent timing and well-guided technique.
Russell Parkman's wood-grained scenery adds texture to the sexy satire of The Secretaries. It's a good-looking production all around. And it's 1950s B-movie scary-funny. By the time secretary Ashley goes mad drinking copier toner, you'll be rooting for the one in her underwear holding the chainsaw.
Undermain Theatre opens its 27th season with David Rabe's The Dog Problem. Rabe, now 70-something, is one of those playwrights, like Mamet and Shepard, who made his mark early in his career with plays in which men talk a lot of shit with other men. Rabe wrote a trilogy in the 1970s about soldiers going to and coming back from the Vietnam War and those are still his best work. Boom Boom Room (1973) and Hurlyburly (1984) are his explorations of how men coldly exploit and damage women and feel nothing while doing it.
The Dog Problem, now 10 years old, is a deeply flawed two hours and 15 minutes of logorrheic fluff about third-rate goombahs who dismiss women and pets as equally worthless. Set in Lower Manhattan's Little Italy—though John Arnone's scenery in Undermain's basement space suggests nothing like that, with its forest of artificial Christmas trees and Styrofoam gravestones—the play finds a low-rent hood named Ray (Jonathan Brooks) in trouble with an even lower-rent mook named Joey (Newton Pittman). Ray has committed the sin of allowing his six-year-old mutt to witness a sexual liaison between himself and Joey's sister Teresa (Shannon Kearns-Simmons). Trying to put a scare into Ray, Joey pulls a gun and tells him it's his life or the dog's. Gutless Ray, after a treat-laden goodbye scene, turns over the pup (adorably played by a pooch named Buddy) and, bada-bing bada-boom, the dog's dead.
And that's pretty much it, except for a long meander into the psychic visions of Ray's pal Ronnie (Drew Wall, always good at playing a twitchy dope) and the prostate probs of Joey's ailing old Uncle Malvolio (Bruce DuBose, doing an Uncle Junior impersonation with occasional slips into an Irish brogue). All of the dialogue has that pat, repetitive cadence of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on first?" routine.
Directed by Katherine Owens, The Dog Problem is a waste of everybody's time, including Buddy's.
Over in Fort Worth, Circle Theatre has Bright Ideas, a low-wattage comedy by Eric Coble about young parents so eager to get their toddler into the "right" preschool that they murder the mommy of the only kid higher on the waiting list, thus opening up a slot (as said kid has to move out of state to live with his dad). The plot imitates Macbeth, amusingly at first, then so closely it gets tiresome. Instead of the royal banquet scene, it's a 4-year-old's birthday party, with the ghost of the deceased super-mommy wafting through. The third or fourth time the "out, damn spot" speech is touched upon—and with pesto-covered hands instead of bloodstained—we've gotten it already and we're so over it.
What laughs there are in Bright Ideas come mainly from the work of the director, pro farceur Robin Armstrong, and the nimble-footed cast of solid comic actors. Andy Baldwin, a Circle Theatre regular, does frantically funny footwork in the dinner party scene where his character, Josh, and wife Genevra (Norah Sweeney Villanueva) nearly botch the job of serving the poisoned pasta to pushy Denise (Leslie Patrick). Recent SMU grad Morgan McClure and actor John Venable, his hair bleached butter-blond, play a variety of roles and do them all exceedingly well. Venable's funniest as a kiddie-restaurant beaver mascot bemoaning his treatment at the sticky hands of grabby moppets (the beaver get-up and all the rest are beautifully turned out by Armstrong, who's also the costume designer).
With jokes about preschool productions of Cabaret and making 5-year-olds run cancer charity marathons, Bright Ideas runs out of new ideas about halfway through the first act. Genevra, so focused on ensuring her child's success that she counts murder as a viable option to achieve it, comes across as one of those obnoxious Mama Grizzlies, willing to do anything to get what she wants. Nothing funny about that.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.