“I am determined to get married again,” says Magnolia, in the expository solo lines that open Samm-Art Williams’s slight and retro new comedy. Indeed, that desire drives the plot. Magnolia hosts three equally desperate friends for a party with some eligible and upstanding men, and they flirt, compete, argue, and reconcile. That’s all there is to it—except for one zany twist: All the women are widows and the block they live on in Port Town, North Carolina, is widely regarded as jinxed. Some people, as early dialogue announces, even believe the women have murdered their husbands.
Would that they had. While the play scores easy laughs when the men invited to the party express the anxiety that they may be walking into a trap, and a death three-quarters of the way through remains unexplained, The Dance on Widows’ Row doesn’t ever bite hard into the sexism and internalized misogyny that might lead women to vicious and giddy homicide. Like its main characters, the play is too lighthearted and genteel for such discomfiting ideas, so it nibbles gently around these issues without ever baring any teeth. In contrast to the Five Lesbian Brothers’ far more troubling, and far more hilarious, play The Secretaries, the women here are trying to disprove, not embrace, their reputation—so bad, one quips, that they couldn’t get a date in a men’s prison.
So the laughs, abundant as they are, reinforce rather than challenge abiding characterizations of women as predatory and men as their willing, if manipulated, victims. Indeed, Williams’s central comic mechanism is exaggeration of that tired trope. Williams gives his women no lives or interests beyond their single-minded pursuit of a mate and seems to suggest that the difference between hunting down and bagging a partner, and actually killing, is only a matter of degree.
The bait, of course, is the offer of sex, and the conflict of this by-the-numbers plotting emerges when one of the women, rejected at first for her Bible-thumping prudery, returns to the party in a skimpy red dress, grinding her hips and puckering her lips as if auditioning for a cable-TV ad for an escort service. The other women, who at first ridiculed her for being too buttoned up, now deride her for looking “like Tina Turner on a budget.” But the men drool, turning their attentions away from their more decorous dates. That, one character gingerly suggests, may be reason enough for their punishment by poisoning, but the play’s action says otherwise: The other three women excuse themselves from the party for a while, only to return in their own flouncy outfits. And the outfits work. Never mind the corpse in the easy chair. Two new romances flourish.
What makes it all mildly amusing—cheap yuks about Prozac and Viagra notwithstanding—is a first-rate cast having a blast. Barbara Montgomery’s Magnolia is trying to contain her horniness as if trying to plug leaks all over a sinking boat. She scrambles to act dignified, and the disjunction is a hoot. As one of the male guests, Jack Landrón is especially winning, combining desire and trepidation in perfect measure. The eager audience at the New Federal Theatre laughed as robustly as anyone could at a two-hour sitcom. Whether such a wonderfully diverse crowd—old, young, white, black, Asian, Latino—could equally enjoy more demanding, and thus potentially contentious or even divisive, work is a challenge I hope to see New Federal take on.