Double Your Pleasure
I approached Two Women Avoiding Involuntary Hospitalization: A Hormonal Cabaret with some trepidation. A few years back, it seemed all of the magazines and newspapers were full of commentary about menopause. Women bemoaned their hot flashes; experts prescribed various remedies, from meditation and soy to the universal use of estrogen replacement; creepily optimistic pundits like Gail Sheehey urged us to use the change of life as a spur to reinvent ourselves; therapists spun Jungian fables about wisdom and witches. For supplement manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, menopause was a flourishing industry; for middle-aged women with too much time on their hands and too few real worries, it was a grand excuse to obsess about themselves. (Let me hasten to ward off furious letters by clarifying that I'm not talking about genuine health problems here.) At any rate, an evening of jokes about aging and menopause -- especially given the threat that it might slide into something platitudinous -- wasn't my idea of a good time.
Fortunately, that's not what writer-performers Nancy Cranbourne and Patti Dobrowolski had in mind, either. They've put together an evening of skits (based on a loose plot) that touches on all of these topics but skips the preaching and self-absorption and keeps the audience flying through a giddy, giggle-ruffled ether. Their comedy is unlike anything I've seen before. Just as you think you've got the bit in which Cranbourne examines her aging hands pegged -- Oh, she's going to talk about all the wonderful things she's done with those hands, the babies cradled, the bread baked -- the actress lifts into inspired lunatic abstraction. She and Dobrowolski don't insult our intelligence; they don't preach. The odd thing is that every now and then, they do something genuinely and unexpectedly moving. With tooth-jarring bitterness, Dobrowolski bemoans her inability to conceive. We empathize -- and the script promptly debunks her longing. Cranbourne almost croons the words with which she celebrates fatness: She exhorts us to slide our hands beneath our underwear and grab our own fat backsides in tones so beseeching that it's all we can do not to follow her instructions. Later, robed as a preacher, she gives us instructions on how to maximize sexual pleasure. "What a sermon," sighed the man next to me as she concluded.
The play begins when two characters called Nancy and Patti -- versions of the actresses themselves -- arrive at a spa, expecting to be coddled, massaged and feasted. Instead they find the place is run by a pair of sadistic Brits (the actresses play all the roles), and they're frozen, starved and sent on long, pointless expeditions. This first act contains lots of jokes about hoarding food that don't rise much above the level of a Golden Girls episode. In general, it's less inspired than the second act -- though it does have its moments, as when Cranbourne, sneaking chips behind a magazine so Dobrowolski won't notice, whispers "Sssshhh" to the rustling, crinkling bag. Or as each woman in turn -- dutifully attempting one of the camp's silly exercises -- tries to find her inner animal. Cranbourne comes up with a chipmunk. Dobrowolski circles confusedly, trying to be a bear, then a bunny, and finally decides that she's a large, bloodthirsty crow. Which eats the bunny. Dobrolowski also shines as one of the Brits, striding the stage and eyeing the audience balefully, bullying us about "that smelly little animal that you call you" and forcing all of us to our feet -- only to bark at us to sit down again.
By the beginning of the second act, the women have liberated the camp, and it's here that the two actresses pull out all the stops. There is, thank heaven, no message, nothing about aging gracefully or finding the goddess within. But the show has a warmth and humor that's nonetheless transformative. I've been trying to figure out if the script is as funny and clever as it seemed, or if it was the women's amazing performances that animated some fairly ordinary writing.
The answer's not straightforward. The ending of the play doesn't quite work, and there are a lot of sitcom-style jokes. But the production also sparkles with moments of purely inspired lunacy, and I think they emerged from all-stops-out improvisation. In other words, you can't separate the words and the acting. Cranbourne and Dobrowolski manage to be funny and satiric while still giving themselves to the characters so fully that we actually develop feelings for them. More than that, we're sucked into their worldview. We empathize with Dobrolowki's makeover artist, who believes power and salvation lie in face powder and a good hairdo, and with Cranbourne's shy, dykey Jane, whose uptight rendition of "Hey, Big Spender" becomes looser and looser without ever losing its macho integrity. Throughout the evening, Cranbourne proves she's one of the best actresses around. Watch the way she works a silence, uses her body, creates a caricature and then humanizes it, without sacrificing her comic edge. Her presentation is a lesson for a lot of would-be funny actors. As for the rest of you, forget the politics, philosophy or sociology of menopause and go see this show for one simple reason: It'll have you in stitches.
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