Beautiful Bodies: Girl Talk
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Ada Calhoun, Fri., Dec. 17, 1999
Beautiful Bodies: girl talk
The Off Center,
through December 18
Running Time: 2 hrs
This is the Propaganda Troop's first production, and it is a hell of a debut. The premise: Six thirtysomething women gather for a baby shower at a New York apartment. All are in a state of turmoil, with boyfriends being sought and dumped, careers soaring and floundering, and biological clocks ticking to beat the band. As in Claire Boothe Luce's classic play and film The Women (whose wry, witty spirit is evoked here), men appear only as topics of conversation and offstage (e.g., on the phone). Plays exclusively by and of girls can often seem like they're also only for girls, and preaching to the converted at that. But Beautiful Bodies, in addition to being a non-pandering meditation on womanhood and the disputable virtue of playing it safe, is also a smart, satisfying story about one of those nights when all the huge secrets get spilled and all the stale air gets cleared.
Each character enters the scene a stereotype -- the neurotic actress, the mannerless yuppie, the depressed model -- and emerges, at the end of the second act, both sympathetic and fascinating. All are drawn in meticulous detail, from the uppity, graceless Martha (Heidi Howell), who uses "condo" as a verb, to the rough-talking redhead Nina (Lindsay Doleshal, also the director), who talks about that afternoon's sexcapades with her Jewish Buddhist-monk neighbor. How these very different women were drawn to each other in the first place is a mystery worthy of a prequel, but the fact that their friendship is ancient is beyond question.
Playwright Laura Cunningham's razor-sharp ear for dialogue carries the whole thing along like a breeze. Segues from the banal into the profound are natural, and the emotional tenor never wavers. Cunningham's ability to reveal characters' innermost insecurities via their reactions to hors d'oeurves recalls the intense party sequences in works by British stage and screenwriter/director Mike Leigh (Naked, Secrets and Lies). Cunningham also shares with Leigh an adroit sense of social cruelty and does a wonderful job of illustrating women's penchant for both attacking and protecting each other's weaknesses.
A "What do girls talk about when they're alone?" voyeurism pervades, and plenty of stereotypical thirtysomething female anxieties are on display, as in "Our eggs are rotting as we speak!" and "Eventually there are no men, there is no sex, you just get rashes!" But the discussion veers to the subtle -- "Maybe playing it safe isn't so safe" -- and the philosophical -- "Is there anything louder than a zipper on its way up?" -- in ways that keep it from turning into an episode of Ally McBeal.
Beautiful Bodies is a thought-provoking, life-affirming production about women's friendships and life choices. This sounds like a tag line for some Waiting To Exhale-esque film, but even in the play's few clichéd moments ("Your hips are almost normal now"), there is a warm, clever aesthetic at work, and it creates an atmosphere of revelation and good will. As it is currently being staged, there is furthermore a tenuous division between performers and audience that makes it seem as though everyone is at the party, everyone has been friends for years, and we're every one of us just going through a kind of rough spell right now. Dazzlingly humane, this play bodes extremely well for the prospects of the Propaganda Troop.