Parallel Lives, at the Avenue Theater, begins promisingly, with two heavenly beings designing the human race. They discuss skin color -- red, tan, yellow -- and worry that those humans with ordinary white skin may feel left out or inferior. They decide that procreation will occur through sex and that women will bear the babies, but they fear the latter privilege may make the male of the species jealous. "Let's just give him as much ego as possible and hope for the best," sighs one.
So far, so funny. But then things degenerate. Many of the pieces that make up this two-woman program seem absolutely pointless. Some have a point, but it's not worth more than a moment's consideration. A few sketches are funny or interesting, but several keep going long after you've savored whatever comedic nourishment they provide. Yes, it's a funny idea that while women tend to be secretive and ashamed about menstruation, men would celebrate if they had periods, holding parties and bragging about flow intensity. That is, it's funny for about three minutes. But the bit doesn't stop once the point is made and -- like many of these sketches -- it lacks a defining ending. One of the best scenes, "Hank and Karen Sue," involves a drunken barfly and the tired divorcee he enjoys flirting with -- buying her drinks, proposing to her regularly. "You look very, very pretty," he breathes boozily into her ear again and again. The joke is that his constant come-on is mindless and reflexive, while she's so lonely, she wishes he were sincere. As in almost all good humor, the scene has poignancy as well as laughs. But again, authors Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney don't know when to stop, and after a while the evening begins to feel endless.
Periodically the play gets mildly serious, but the themes are old and worn, as in a meditation about abortion, or a monologue in which an aunt recounts how she came to realize that her beloved nephew was gay and learned to accept him and his lover.
Written in 1986, Parallel Lives is dated. It's not just the references to Mork and Mindy, Jane Fonda, "women's lib," tuna casserole and "a vagina on a plate" (a nod to Judy Chicago's 1970s installation "The Dinner Party"). It's the absolute conventionality of the authors' thinking.
Pamela Clifton and Beth Flynn are both strong actresses, and they bring a lot of humor and energy to the play. Flynn is at her best as an Italian teenager for whom such pre-feminist cliches about love as "You love them whatever they do" and "On every level, love hurts" represent revelation. She's also very good as a little Catholic girl afraid of God, and as the boozing male of "Hank and Karen Sue." Clifton has a Lily Tomlin-ish charm as a woman fantasizing about life with Kenny Rogers, and she's funny and touching as the wary, world-weary Karen Sue.
This production marks a milestone of sorts in the Denver theater landscape. John Ashton, who has owned the Avenue since 1990, recently sold control to longtime collaborator and original Avenue founder Robert Wells. Two years ago, Ashton moved the Avenue to its current location, announcing the move with a stunning production of Metamorphoses, directed by Jeremy Cole. There has been nothing as artistically exciting in the space since. Wells intends to use the theater for comedy, keeping things hopping with lunchtime programs, improvisation and improv classes, as well as evening shows. He is also bringing in Nicholas Sugar and an amped-up version of The Rocky Horror Show that was recently staged by Pinnacle Dinner Theatre. Things may or may not get more innovative at the Avenue, but with any luck, whatever comes next will be funnier than Parallel Lives.
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