The set-up: If you need validation of how far we've come - in society and on stage - I direct your gaze to Alan Ball's Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, now playing on autopilot at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios courtesy of Mildred's Umbrella. It's not the company's fault that this play is tiresome, for the actors are quite remarkable, fresh, and natural. It's the play that's stale and root bound.
The execution: Ball is a definite winner in Hollywood, cutting his teeth on two seminal sitcoms featuring tough female characters, Saving Grace and Cybill. He hit the big time with American Beauty (2000), which won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His former HBO TV show, Six Feet Under, with its funeral home setting, won Ball an Emmy and has become a cult favorite, while his current show, True Blood, his vampire-in-small-Southern-town goth series, finishes its final season this year. Ball likes quirky dysfunction, but there's a whiff of Writing 101 that swirls through his snappy one-liners and smart dialogue. Take Women, for example.
Five bridesmaids, who don't like the bride, naturally, and aren't her friends, take shelter from the reception in the bedroom of the bride's sister. In order of appearance, the five, all different personalities so they can spark and smolder, naturally, are Francis (Elizabeth Keel), the sanctimonious Christian virgin; Meredith (Margaret Lewis), the bride's snarky, brittle sister; Trisha (Briana Resa), the cynical slut who's caught between wanting a commitment and wanting to bed every good-time Charlie; Georgeanne (Jennifer Decker), the married one who's hot to trot, if anyone would look at her; and Mindy (Nikki Wuertz), the lesbian sister of the groom. Shocking!
Later we meet Tripp (H.R. Bradford), the only male in the show, a rather liberated guy who's fallen for Trisha. In the penultimate scene, these two go through the motions of a seduction scene, like outtakes from an unfinished Noel Coward bedroom farce, only without the wit or sophistication.
While the women are expertly drawn by the actors, the plotting's so mundane and artificial with the confessions and secrets coming at a pace meant for commercial interruptions, that we never truly get under their skin. With five women as protagonists, somebody's got to take a backseat -- Francis for one, whose schtick is to say to anyone who offers her a joint or a glass of champagne, "No, thanks, I'm a Christian." This wears thin quickly. We know just where her character arc is headed: a makeup session where the duckling becomes a swan and off she goes to flirt with the bartender.
Everyone's a patsy with their own sob story about how they've been done wrong by men. The tales fall out of their mouths with surefire timing. We knew precisely when another character is going to open that bedroom door, and in falls another tale. Been there, done that - Steel Magnolias, Bridesmaids, My Best Friend's Wedding. Maybe Women was in the forefront of these sisterhood panoramas, but it's long past its shelf life. Even Meredith's harrowing confession about child rape falls flat not through Lewis's heartfelt rendition of the story, but because we know what's coming. These familial sagas grow wearyingly familiar. It's all a little musty.
Still, Decker's Georgeanne is dry as a good martini. She's got the best lines, and delivers them with deadpan, wicked assurance. Wuertz's Mindy is tough but vulnerable, natch, as a tough but vulnerable alternative sister, and Resa embodies "gorgeous" Trisha. But her slight conversion after the scene with Tripp rings as false as Meredith's Malcolm X poster above the bed. What's that about? Or the discussion about AIDS? At some point, the characters aren't the ones preaching, Ball is. These mini exegeses last but a few lines at most, but they trip up the play.
The verdict: By no means sour, Ball's comedy/drama has plenty of laughs to get you over the rough patches, while the distaff quintet, with its one male, is more than qualified to see you safely home. There's no great theme here, just five women sittin' around talkin' and bitchin'. Although there's much made about how awful the bridesmaid dress is, the coral Empire design by Lindsay Burns isn't nearly as horrible as they pretend. Much like the play.
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. Through June 21. Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Reserve tickets online at mildredsumbrella.com or call 832-463-0409. All performances are Pay-What-You-Can. A portion of the box office will be donated to The Houston Area Women's Center.