The Feminine Mystique

The whole thing starts in heaven where two white-winged "supreme beings" are busy hashing out the man/woman thing. Besotted with indecision, they resort to eenie-meenie-minie-mo, making the woman the lucky one who gets to have the baby. Worried about the unfairness of the situation, the angels throw in a little pain, make birth kind of messy and then they give the man "as much ego as possible." And so begins the war between the sexes as told by Kathy Najimy (the giggling nun in Sister Act) and Mo Gaffney in their 1989 off-Broadway hit, The Kathy & Mo Show: Parallel Lives. The show, which went on to major success on HBO in the early '90s, covers the gamut of feminine and feminist woes. Everything from tampons to performance art gets a tender poke in this series of Saturday Night Live-style sketches -- just the sort of thing that Theater LaB Houston does better than anybody else in town. And with his two-woman cast consisting of local funny woman Michelle Britton and the lovely Leslie Maness, who play all the struggling characters in this weird world, director Bill McDonald can't lose.

Once man and woman are created, they've just absolutely got to go on a date. How else will they get to the baby part? Enter Kris (Britton) and Jeff (Maness), two typically mismatched students who end up at a "queer Denny's" for a late night meal. He swaggers in, eats a burger, and expects her to love him for being the big man on campus that he apparently is. She swings her big head of curls and giggles as she "stuffs" herself on lettuce. She's the sort of confused young woman who doesn't "do women's lib" even though she believes that women ought to get paid the same as men. And though she clearly wants him to like her more than anything, she can't help but get outraged when a waitress speaks rudely to a cross-dresser at the next table. Just because "their parents must not have cared about them or given them money or anything" is no reason to be ugly to people, she reasons, as Jeff sinks into the booth in humiliated silence. This headstrong, giggling girl embodies the quintessential America female coming-of-age confusion: How can she be feminine and strong at once? It's a paradox that Britton handles with wit and heart.

Two scenes take quick stabs at some of the most common differences between the sexes. In "Period Piece," Britton and Maness create a world in which men, not women, are the ones who get "the curse." Instead of obscuring the matter in a cloud of euphemisms, as women have done for eons, men brag about their "super" sized tampons, then celebrate the monthly event with drunken beer blasts. In "Silent Torture," Maness mimes through a morning of horrifying female rituals that include plucking, shaving, squeezing, painting, blow-drying and the rest of the chores that make the body "feminine." Invoking the full powers of her enormous blue eyes, Maness creates a sort of hysterical magic in the scene.

The best scenes, though, are the ones that are at once moving and funny, as in "Las Hermanas" about two older women who go back to junior college and major in women's studies. This hilarious screed against militant feminists also manages to render a wonderfully loving portrait of mature women who must negotiate the politics of a changing world. Sylvia and Madeline, best friends for 43 years, take such classes as "Women and Terrorism," and "Women and Their Body Temperatures." We meet them when they are to hang with their class for an evening of feminist performance art, during which no easy joke is overlooked. The performance artists -- Britton and Maness rush through some lightening-quick changes here -- rush onto the stage shouting, "We are birth, O great uterus of womyn, O Labia, O Goddess Labia." Britton and Maness pull off the utterly ludicrous lines with such deadpan seriousness that the opening night audience hooted and howled with laughter.

Yet, inside this scene is a long monologue by Britton about an older aunt who discovers that her nephew is gay. Britton renders the bittersweet moment with an enormously moving depth. The whole show, which clips along at a carnival pace, suddenly slows down, as if to appreciate the seriousness of the tale. Sweeping across Britton's face is a painful disappointment, followed by a dark resignation, which eventually brightens with joy for the intimacy of the revelation. It is a powerful theatrical moment delivered with a great deal of kick by this actress.

The show is not without its weaknesses. The material, for all its contemporary resonance, sometimes comes across as dated. It's been years since militant feminists touted the "I spell woman with a y" idea. And during "Mrs. Kenny Rogers," a scene about the whore-Madonna paradigm in country music, one can't help but wonder how many young women have no idea who the hell Kenny Rogers is.

There are also a few scenes filled with such weak writing that the only thing that saves them is the strength of the performances. "Hank and Karen Sue," about two small-town barflies, is never ending. Britton's Hank is a hoot, but there are only so many laughs to be squeezed out of the line, "Karen Sue (drunken pause), you look very, very pretty tonight," which Hank slurs out over and over because he's too drunk to think of anything else.

But these few bobbles don't diminish the easy fun of The Kathy & Mo Show. While it might not pack the feminist punch it had back in the late '80s, when it was first created, most women will recognize a small piece of themselves among these many characters that are rendered here with such sly affection by two charming performers.

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Lee Williams