What you see in the first act of Women Laughing Alone with Salad, currently onstage at Urbanite Theatre, is not necessarily what you get, in the second act and overall.
The first 75 minutes of Sheila Callaghan’s play (which derives its title from those ubiquitous stock images of women exulting over their greens, becoming an Internet meme and stirring controversy on feminist blog Hairpin) seem like a wild and crazy romp, beginning with just what the title promises—three women on a park bench, forks dipped into their colorful salad bowls and yukking it up. That is, until a man enters the park and begins slowly, tantalizing, unfolding his sandwich in front of them. They eye it with lust. And then we move on to various titled scenes—The Bar, The Carpet, etc.—that feature Guy (Ben Williamson) interacting with the three women of his life.
The three are his mother Sandy (Vicki Daignault), once a feminist activist but now an Upper East Side matron prone to slavish devotion to insane fitness and beauty regimens; Guy’s girlfriend Tori (Annabelle Mayock), who’s defined as “skinny enough that people worry about her”; and the more “ample” Meredith (Summer Dawn Wallace), whom Guy is attracted to at a club because she dances with abandon and apparently doesn’t care what people think of her. In Callaghan’s script, Guy is trying to figure out what he really wants from these women, who clearly don’t seem to be real, three-dimensional people. They could be, partly at least, figments of his imagination. (He’s got a degree in creative writing, after all.)
The fantasy-feeling three-way that Guy, Meredith and Tori indulge in near the end of the first act adds to the suspicion that these characters are not exactly what they seem. Maybe I’m reading too much into the action here, but it’s hard not to think Callaghan’s after more than just pointing out how women and society at large struggle with female body images (although that’s certainly true, too).
The lettuce-hurling scene that closes out the first act could, I suppose, be perceived as just good (although not clean) fun—be warned, there’s plenty of frank sexual talk and activity throughout. Perhaps that talk, or just a weariness with wondering what Callaghan’s aim is in that long first act, led to the number of audience members leaving the theater at intermission. Those who did will have no clue what they missed in the second act, which turns things around by having Guy, 14 years later, at work for a company marketing a pill called Effervatol aimed at women (and their lack of confidence), with macho co-workers played by Daignault and Wallace, in men’s clothing, and a female boss (Williamson) wearing a power-red suit. Gender role switcheroo here.
The four cast members throw themselves into the show, and there’s a great deal of energy expended, and some laughs delivered, under the direction of Ria Cooper. That can’t disguise that Women is uneven at best, and frustrating at worst (even if, perhaps, Callaghan wants us to be frustrated.) It may be something of a test for Urbanite audiences, which have shown themselves willing to be challenged in the past.
Women Laughing Alone with Salad runs through May 6; for tickets call 321-1397 or visit urbanitetheatre.com.