This week I’ve seen three theatre productions written by women.
The Jewish Women’s Theatre’s latest production, “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” at The Braid in Santa Monica, is based on National Jewish Book Award and Edgerton New Play Award-winner Sherri Mandell’s book of the same name, adapted for the stage by Todd Salovey.
At Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse Laura Eason’s “Sex with Strangers” tackles the topics of romance, royalties, and print vs. digital in the Internet age. And in Culver City at The Kirk Douglas Theatre, the West Coast premiere of “Women Laughing Alone with Salad,” is a homecoming of sorts – it’s the latest by the highly prolific Sheila Callaghan, developed at the 2012-2013 Center Theatre Group Writers’ Workshop.
Sex permeates “Women Laughing…” and “Sex with Strangers,” but it’s subsidiary to the social themes they explore.
Who knew there’s a Tumblr blog dedicated to stock photos of women laughing alone with salad? It’s a “thing,” and you have to wonder why. Is it about health and well-being? Image-driven? Why are they alone? Why are they laughing?
“Women Laughing…” is rapid-fire verbally and scenically, well performed, brilliantly costumed with bright, multi-functional and dynamic sets.
There are bursts of short scenes, opening with three women on a park bench laughing as they pick at their salads … and each other’s. Next we’re in a dance club where Guy (David Clayton Rogers) lusts after Meredith’s (Dinora Z. Walcott) bounteous booty. Spinning from scene to scene we see Guy with model-thin, blonde beauty girlfriend Tori (Nora Kirkpatrick) who memorizes menus but doesn’t eat; Guy with his mother Sandy (Lisa Banes), a former activist now consumed with anti-aging treatments of the most extreme variety; and Guy working hard to seduce Meredith. There’s a gender role reversal twist in the second act.
You’ll go away amused and bemused. This is not a play for the ages – its references are far too of-the-moment. There are wall-sized marketing images of smiling women with fake products designed to make them more beautiful, happier, sexier. The play doesn’t draw conclusions but raises many questions about women’s self-image and self-awareness, women’s (and men’s) needs, desires and dysfunctions.
It will entertain and probably baffle you. That’s how I reacted. Go see for yourself. “Women Laughing Alone with Salad” is at the Kirk Douglas through April 3. Visit www.centertheatregroup.com for details and tickets.
Sex with Strangers
For three seasons, Laura Eason has written for the Netflix hit, “House of Cards.” Her writing is self-assured and so is the male lead in her latest play, “Sex with Strangers.”
Tucked away at a remote, snowed-in Michigan B&B, we meet a literary writer named Olivia (Rebecca Pidgeon), whose first novel received critically mixed reviews and was poorly marketed and undersold. It’s partly why she gave up writing for teaching. Years after its publication and now in her 30s, she’s on this solo retreat to finish up her newest book, for which she holds out little hope.
There’s no Wi-Fi, no TV, no distractions and no other people until Ethan (Stephen Louis Grush) bursts in. He’s the polar opposite of buttoned-down Olivia. A swaggering, tattooed blogger whose claim to fame is the online character he inhabits, Ethan Strange, he’s the star of a blog called Sex with Strangers. The title says it all.
He’s on a stopover before going to L.A. as his blog becomes a movie. He’s been a secret fan of Olivia’s because he aspires to be a literary writer; despite being younger, hipper, far more worldly and digitally engaged, he is nevertheless smitten with her.
It would be easy to hate him but we’re drawn in. Generationally and socially, they couldn’t be more opposite. She’s a bit aristocratic, he’s all street. She was crushed by her bad (often misspelled) reviews; he thrives on his online anti-hero status and draws power from the fact that he can make so many people pay attention, for good or ill.
As the relationship begins, the power is in his hands – and he uses it to persuade her that he can make connections for her. Once the connections begin to pan out, the power shifts and we’re not sure which way or whether the relationship will last.
I liked “Sex with Strangers,” and I found Grush to be natural and compelling as Ethan; Pidgeon, perhaps because of her character, is stiffer and seems more forced onstage. But that’s a minor complaint.
“Sex with Strangers” runs at The Geffen Playhouse until April 10. More information at www.geffenplayhouse.com.
The Blessing of a Broken Heart
It’s hard to believe that Lisa Robins is an actress portraying someone else’s life. Maybe it’s because she’s the one person who’s played the role since its inception.
Sherri Mandell was a barely-Jewish American woman who married, moved to Israel, became religious, and gave birth to four children. Her eldest son was brutally murdered; her book “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” and its subsequent adaptation into a one-woman play is about turning the tragedy into something redeeming.
Through her faith and with the help of her husband, Mandell has been able to reconcile the horror of her 13-year old son’s brutal bludgeoning in a sacred and mystical cave near their home. Seth, a rabbi, author and journalist believes that the Jewish response to suffering is to live a fuller, more engaged life. To overcome their sorrow, they created the Koby Mandell Foundation which provides healing programs for families struck by terrorism.
This small, meaningful play is scheduled to run through March 20. If a few more people pay attention, maybe it will be extended. Find out more at www.jewishwomenstheatre.org or call (310) 315-1400. The Braid is located at 2912 Colorado Ave. in Santa Monica.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.
Photo: Lisa Robins by photographer Zachary Andrews