The trouble with Girls Only, a two-woman evening of conversation, skits, singing, improvisation and audience participation, is that it's so relentlessly nice. Creator-performers Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein have worked together for many years; at some point, they read their early diaries to each other and were transfixed by the similarities and differences and the insights they gained into their own psyches and the travails of puberty. This theater piece was developed from that material — but not all of that material. "I purposely don't read every diary entry in the show, because it turns out I was kind of mean, and I don't want to be mean," Klein told an interviewer. And the publicity materials assure us that while Girls Only is intended for strictly female audiences, there's nothing hard-edged or man-bashing about it. But mean is funny, and when you cut it out entirely, what do you have to joke about? Girly pink bedrooms, purses, bras, skinny models in glossy magazines.
You also get to celebrate womanhood. Like Menopause the Musical and all the other almost content-free shows that invite women to get together, drink, love themselves and bond with each other, Girls Only has done well so far, selling out at the Avenue Theater, where it originated, and packing the opening-night house at the Galleria last Friday. I'm not sure why we women are supposed to crave constant assurance that we're wonderful simply because of our sex. Are we really that insecure? Gehring and Klein are both talented and appealing stage performers, so I don't know why they're so damn anxious to be liked. Every time they tell a story with even the tiniest bite to it, they move instantly to reassure us that they don't mean it. At one point Klein relates an interesting tale about how, as a child, she came to possess the badly taxidermied body of an electrocuted squirrel: The local barber had filled his window with stuffed animals and, observing her interest in them, showed her the dead squirrel and taught her how to gut, stuff and mount it. But the minute she completes this funny, freaky moment in an otherwise highly predictable evening, Klein gives a pouty, don't-get-me-wrong grin and sweetly caresses the squirrel's head. And even though the actresses have a warm rapport with their viewers, some of the audience participation reminds me of the stratagems nervous teachers use in the classroom when they've run out of material: "So what do you all think about this topic? Let's discuss."
There are some laugh-out-loud bits here: a clever puppet silhouette show; the actors commandeering the purses of a couple of audience members and riffling through them, using the lip gloss and hairbrushes they find (which is funny precisely because it breaches the boundaries of etiquette); a pantyhose dance to the swelling, dramatically emotional music of the snow scene in the Nutcracker — sure, you've seen women comically struggling into pantyhose on stage before, but not while twirling and arabesquing like insane little snowflakes. These good bits are enough for a tight, funny, one-hour-long show, but this one stretches on and on, as if Klein and Gehring were determined to put every single joke and piece of shtick that occurred to them in the script. Except the mean ones. A skit for menopausal women on how to use leftover sanitary supplies contains a few clever moments: using a tampon as an emergency wine bottle cork; shaping a maxi-pad into an angel ornament for the Christmas tree ("It's got wings!"). But it also has many groan-inducing lines and takes far too long.
There's some great gal-pal comedy out there, including Gilda Radner's dotty Lisa Loopner and her friends on the early Saturday Night Live shows, and Patsy and Adena's outrageous, coke-fueled shenanigans in Absolutely Fabulous. I'm not suggesting that Klein and Gehring copy another performer's persona, but I do wish they'd go deeper into their own, develop some...uh...spine, and really cut loose.