Another Summer Rerun

Magnolia Ellis is downright bored with widowhood. She has buried two husbands and is living quite well, thank you very much, off their insurance money. Still, Magnolia wants a man. To reach this lofty goal, she decides to throw a cozy little shindig for four of the town's richest bachelors and three of her favorite gal pals. If all goes right, everybody'll be hooked up by the witching hour.

This is the sitcom setup for Samm-Art Williams's The Dance on Widow's Row, now running at The Ensemble Theatre. The playwright, who also penned The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin, has filled his script with one-liners that work best when the laughs are canned. "I'm determined to get married this year if it kills me," says Magnolia (Bebe Wilson), straight to the audience. Wilson pauses while a polite titter ripples through the crowd. Polite titters are all this show can muster through its entire three hours.

The women arrive first, to get the party and the jokes rolling. Each represents a familiar TV type. The pretty Simi Jackson (Osunbunmi Gaidi) used to be an actress. She swears she's been on television in both commercials and soaps, but nobody's ever seen her there. Loudmouth Lois Miller (Yolande Sigers) is so man-crazy she cooks up two shopping bags full of potato salad and fried chicken wings. (Of course, Magnolia won't serve a bite of it until Lois agrees not to tell anybody she made it; apparently all her husbands died of food poisoning.) Finally the prim, hat-wearing church lady Annie Talbot (Joyce Murray), who's been widowed four times, sweeps into the party saying she's done with "menfolk." Now she's satisfied being a "soldier for the Lord."

The women talk about men, sex and what it is they do with all the money they've made from insurance settlements. The conversations are as improbable as the skintight, blood-red dresses the middle-aged widows wriggle into when the manhunt heats up. Because 20 men have died on widow's row in the last 12 years, no suitors with any sense or dough will come around. The church men who do visit "are always broke," pouts Magnolia. Meanwhile, Lois, who figures she can buy herself a Corvette if she gets one more good settlement, announces she's "horny." Each line sounds more and more like bad '80s TV, but the lame writing is not the biggest problem with this production.

As directed by Wayne DeHart (whose performance in the Alley's production of Jitney was stunning), this show lacks the energy that can make even bad TV compelling. Thirty minutes could have been trimmed from the show had the performers simply said their lines without waiting for long trains of dead time to run between exchanges. The characters do only what's expected in the hands of these actors: Magnolia says each line with triumphant finality, Annie pouts when the others make fun of her churchgoing ways, and man-hungry Lois leers every time she speaks.

It's the men who save the day. When they finally swagger through Magnolia's front door about halfway through the show, it's immediately clear they're the best thing about this production. Again, the characters are a familiar bunch, and the sitcom moments abound. (One eager devil dressed in a tan leisure suit declares himself "tight, right and out of sight.") But somehow DeHart's men manage to make something entertaining out of this ridiculous material.

Only three prospective husbands show up (which accounts for the ladies' change of clothes in Act II): Deacon Hudson (Henry Giles) is that rare find, a church man with money. Wearing an electric blue suit and wingtips to match, he's the best-looking fellow at the party. The fact that he made his big bucks bootlegging and gambling only adds to his glossy veneer. Newly Benson (Ray Walker) is a good-hearted war veteran who's afraid of the ladies and their deadly reputations. And the unluckiest of the three, Randolph Spears (Henry Edwards), arrives carrying a talisman made from the teeth of a black cat. He's not going to let the ladies get the best of him.

According to the women, these fine men all represent "fur coats waiting to happen." This is the sort of rerun joke that should be droning on TV in the background while you're busy cooking dinner.

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Lee Williams