Monday, March 16, 2015

Play: Mean Girls

The Comparables by Laura Schellhardt, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Rep through March 29

Remember when I used this space to talk about stuff that wasn't politics or theatre? Yeah, me neither. Probably those two last topics survive here because they are time-sensitive - elections resolve and plays run their course. Other subjects I tend to overthink, or leave fallow, or abandon entirely. But still, for the moment, theatre.

I want to like The Comparables more than I do. It has a lot of the stuff that I'm always going on about in this space. World premiere. Developed here. Playwright wrote the excellent K of D from a few seasons back. Two thirds of the actresses have tread the boards before. It clocks in at about the right time ( hour and a half, no intermission). Does not succumb to polemic. So what happened here?

Let me start out with the basics. Monica (Cheyenne Casebier) works for Bette (Linda Gehringer), a high end New York real estate firm. Iris (Keiko Green) is a rookie who comes in for an interview with Bette, crashes and burns with the pre-interview with Monica, but gets hired anyway, Iris and Monica become both rivals and allies as the play deals with the conflicts that women have with each other as well as with the old-boys network of society at large.

But the play never really seems to find its level, and quantum jumps all over to the place to different energy states. The stated conflicts feel pretty facile (Bette has a reality show coming up, while Monica and Iris are working on opposing sides of a divorcing couple, seeking to get them to purchase multiple new digs). The deeper issues of Monica's own paralysis in her job are interesting and universal, and but it seems to take its time finding its way to the surface, egged on by frenemy Iris.

And it misfires, particularly when talking about corporations. The initial interview involves sharing way too much personal information, which serves plot but undermines character. Iris and Monica flip between allies and rivals way too often, and suspicions that either one is playing the other sort of evaporates in the shuffle. Bette shifts between Devil-Wearing-Prada to King Lear seeking to pass on her kingdom all too quickly.

Similarly, the play itself flips between a sitcom staginess (Iris encounters Bette in the elevator on the way out and gets the job anyway) and real issues for women operating both in a man's world and against other women. They aren't really competing (comparing) because they are all at different levels in life and professionalism. The action builds to slapstick of a Laverne and Shirley level, then sort of all falls apart in the denouement. Violence on stage is difficult, particularly in the build-up, and it is tough to believe that the characters went that far. (A similar problem existed in Mamet's American Buffalo, where the violence builds to a particular level only to dissipate in an avalanche of pillows).

The comparative age of the characters holds hope for an Maiden/Mother/Crone analysis (as in Three Tall Women). And even here there is room for some definition of character. Iris could be a trickster Loki, getting by on wits and charm. Monica, the matronly self-declared load-building pillar of the company, is very matronly. And again, if we had taken Bette either to wisdom or to dotage we would have had more definitive characterizations.

It felt like the characters were too similar and at the same time not defined enough. On the way in, I passed a portrait of the three actresses, and they had the exact same smile. It may have been intended, that superior, real-estate broker mask in all three, but that mask frustrated me getting to the characters themselves, and to empathizing with them. And it may be as simple as that - I want to root for Monica, but I don't get a lot to base that desire on.

In short (I know, too late for that), it was a failure, but a good failure. It feels like it needs a couple more turns on the wheel, a little more time in the oven, to come up with something with deeper feeling and meaning.

More later,