Bridesmaid's Bash

So I'm sitting in the snug confines of the Houston Skyline Theatre along with the rest of the packed crowd, enjoying The Gypsy Theatre Company's modestly entertaining production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress -- Alan Ball's modestly entertaining comedy-drama about the goings-on of five bridesmaids who aren't terribly fond of the off-stage bride -- when, a few minutes into Act Two, a man in a colorful golf shirt and mismatched pants a few rows behind me noisily rises from his seat, walks with a great deal of deliberation down the house's sole aisle, traipses across the tiny stage that runs flush to the audience and says, gesturing dismissively, center stage, looking at us and snubbing the actresses behind him, "Forget it," before departing from the scene altogether, rather up in arms.

The audience was aghast. And a bit dumbfounded: whatever in this mild play about women's talk could upset someone so? The actresses, barely flinching, kept their composure, stayed in character and, missing nary a beat, continued on.

Right then it became impossible not to root for the show (if we hadn't been already), not to like it a lot, rather aggressively -- indeed, defensively. Any reservations about how slight the content and how moderate the performances vanished. So be forewarned: circumstances endear me to this production.

But then again, I was already predisposed to receive it warmly because The Gypsy Theatre Company is among my favorites of Houston's new, small community theaters. Not simply because its stated goal is to be "just slightly off-center" or because it strives to "promote women in theater by producing plays by or about women." But because it embraces the classics while doing so. Two of the three productions in its debut season last year were Genet's The Maids and Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, and director Charlene Hudgins staged them with ingenious energy and terrific accessibility, so much so that even though The Maids didn't quite work, it was almost as captivating as the effervescent Errors. I hope Hudgins keeps her promise that this season will include Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Lindsay and Crouse's State of the Union.

When I told a friend about what happened at Five Women, he suggested that, given Hudgins' playful spirit, I should call her to make sure the moment wasn't staged. "Oh no," she said, somewhat complimented by the question. According to Hudgins, the man didn't like it that the play touches upon the innocent self-righteousness of one of the bridesmaids, a Christian, and when the house managers asked him if anything was the matter, he, a liberal partaker at the concession bar before the show, said, "I'm offended -- can I have another glass of wine?"

Anyway, the toast of the town is less the text than the cast. With no real plot on the agenda, male playwright Ball gathers together a typical varied group of women who haven't seen each other in years or don't know each other at all: slutty Trisha, unhappily married Georgeanne, the groom's blithe lesbian sister Mindy, religious Frances and Meredith, the resentful, rebel younger sister of the bride who has it all. Coming and going from Meredith's bedroom at the wedding reception, the bridesmaids talk sex and trash men, rekindle old friendships and reveal their souls. They scope out the guests and complain about their dresses. Joints are smoked, champagne flows and Frances, of course, is dismayed. But she gets a makeover and a date with the hunk they've all been eyeing and is appeased. Another guy said to have put the moves on all of them, Mindy included, is plotted against. Georgeanne decides to divorce her philandering husband. Confused, hostile Meredith flirts with being attracted to Mindy, or at least to lesbianism. Trisha finds a guy just like her and almost blows the opportunity. And so on.

The groom is "the biggest piece of wet toast" they ever saw. Trisha, who's slept with half the men at the reception, proclaims she won't let anyone run her life -- anyone, that is, but men or her mother. When one woman announces that all she wants is a straight, single, employed man, she's told that maybe she should lower her expectations. The plus about going to sleazy bars that play '50s and '60s music is "at least I'm not the oldest one there." The best lines revolve around Frances: "It's okay," she comforts Georgeanne, "Jesus wept." When she describes His glories, Georgeanne thinks she would like to date Him.

At times the play turns uncomfortably serious. Meredith reveals that a guest who's been involved with a number of the bridesmaids sexually abused her when she was a teenager. Frances is taken to task for her intolerances. Mindy is a mouthpiece for sexual politics. But none of these issues are developed, some being dropped like a hot potato almost as soon as they arise. But the light production isn't about them anyway.

It's about familiar (sometimes too familiar) situation comedy, female-style, and director Hudgins knows this. She has maverick Meredith tote a black leather biker jacket and don army boots. The cast Oh my God's together when spying a cute guy. Of course, a bridesmaid snags her dress closing a door. There's gentle amusement in the air. And even though Aliza Bennett's terrific, plush bedroom set with purposeful clashing accouterments takes up more than half of the already limited acting area of the Skyline stage, there's an easy intimacy to the proceedings.

From the appealing but somewhat innocuous ensemble, Kim Sevier stands out as Meredith. Nicely casual with her body, she's good at suggesting her sexual ambiguousness is also a more profound type of searching. Ellen Suits supplies Mindy's banter with self-effacement and common sense. And JeanAnn Hutsell's Trisha gets an endearingly ambivalent kick out of being trashy. Late in the game, when Chris Tsanais appears as the man of Trisha's dreams and they engage in a serio-comic battle of wills, Hutsell makes the commonplace scenario seem freshly charged, no doubt in part because in last year's The Comedy of Errors she played a good-time courtesan out to seduce Tsanais' Antipholus.

"We are fabulous," the bridesmaids say at the end of things, huddling for a photograph. I wouldn't go that far about Ball's text or Hudgins' production, but the "forget it" man missed out on some good, harmless fun.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress
plays through June 3 at Houston Skyline Theatre, 1617 Fannin, ninth floor of the Houston House Apartments, 759-0701.