The MRT production marches clumsily along the fine line of being funny and knowing it is funny, which makes it … well … much less funny.
Women in Jeopardy! by Wendy MacLeod. Directed by Sean Daniels. Scenic design by Michael B. Raiford, Costume design by Deborah Newhall; Lighting design by Brian J. Lilienthal; and Sound design by David Remedios. Produced by Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through March 12th.
By David Greenham
Chardonnay Tuesday isn’t going the comfortable way that divorcées Mary (Jessica Wortham) and Jo (Julia Brothers) planned. They intended that Liz (Gail Rastorfer) would join them, but didn’t anticipate that she’d be in the throes of a passionate affair with her new but odd lover Jackson (Lou Sumrall), a strange dentist who has a morbid sense of humor and resembles Jesse “The Body” Ventura. “Women always want to marry doctors, why not dentists?” Liz protests, “Dentists are doctors with regular hours.”
That’s where Wendy MacLeod’s wanna-be rollicking comedy Women in Jeopardy! begins. As Merrimack Repertory Theatre Director of Finance Edgar Cyrus promised in his curtain speech, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. You might love this show, or you might hate it. I definitely was left with a strong reaction.
On the positive side, the ensemble cast, rounded out by Ashley Shamoon (Liz’s daughter Amanda) and Jacob York (Trenner), is strong and hits every mark director (and MRT artistic director) Sean Daniels has set for them. The script comes across as the kind of ‘entertaining’ play made to make the rounds of regional theaters across the country. It’s light, silly, overblown, with plot twists and turns and plenty of funny lines like “women don’t kill strangers, they kill husbands.” Or this exchange: “Do you have a firearm?” “Of course not, we’re Democrats.”
But even escapism needs to amount to something. At least this Chardonnay Tuesday had to do more than revel in generating silly pizazz if it was going to truly intoxicate. The production marches clumsily along the fine line of being funny and knowing it is funny, which made it … well .. much less funny.
MacLeod appears to be an accomplished playwright. Her black comedy House of Yes was made into a 1997 film and won an acting award for Parker Posey at the Sundance Film Festival. She’s written a dozen or so plays that have been performed at major theaters around the country. Daniels, who in 2015 directed the premiere production of the play at Rochester, NY’s Geva Theater, has brought together most of the design team from the debut staging: Michael B. Raiford provides a lovely modern kitchen set that transforms into a birch forest; Brian J. Lilienthal’s lights are sharp and crisp, and David Remedios’ sound design hits all the right, if obvious, buttons. Only costume designer Deborah Newhall is new to this play, and she jumps on to the over-the-top motif with ease, especially with Liz’s costumes.
As for the acting, it is consistent with the concept, which means unrealistic and bereft of honest emotion. Everyone does what is needed, especially our protagonists, Wortham and Brothers, who squirm, squeal, and pounce on every arch melodramatic gesture demanded by Daniels’ precise choreography. York’s Trenner and Summrall’s Sgt. Kirk Sponsüllar are potentially the script’s most interesting characters. We never really find out because they never rise above the level of functionaries.
It would be fun to see the relationship of Wortham’s Mary and Brothers’ Jo played in a more nuanced comic mode, when all of their reactions didn’t have to compete with the inflated alarm of a Lucy and Ethel panic attack. As this play barrels? catapults? explodes? off the stage, you are left exhausted. Despite the heavy drinking – even chugging – of wine, and the fine cast and crew, the sledgehammer highs of Women in Jeopardy! end up leaving you feeling low.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.