Feminism lends itself to uncovering and defusing gender double standards, but it also encourages the formation of some new ones. For instance, if a play is written, directed, produced, and primarily acted by women, I’d like that play to come off rather smarter, braver, and better than the competition. Unfair? Sure. But certainly no more unfair than sitting through the Women’s Project offering of Julie Jensen’s Cheat, a work that meets none of these criteria.
In the lobby beforehand, a theater employee was overheard informing friends that the play contained bold stuff and that some overcome audience members had walked out of previous performances. That’s a wishful correlation, since the play offers nothing more racy than a hand-holding dance between two women and one fraught hug. A lack of salaciousness can’t be objected to, but the play’s reactionary attitude toward a lesbian relationship can. Its insistence that an affair between women can only lead to tragedy and heartbreak smacks of first-wave or even no-wave feminism. Also, in its exclusive depiction of a white, lower-middle-class world, Cheat ignores what better feminist playwrights—Caryl Churchill, Naomi Wallace, Maria Irene Fornes—have stressed: that race, class, culture, even language can’t easily be separated out from questions of gender and sexuality.
Cheat concerns the interrupted amours of two women working in a 1945 munitions factory. The high-school-aged Roxy had shared Spam lunches and no little frisson with Reva, the mother of her boyfriend. One day that boyfriend thought he witnessed something that led him to run off and join the army, and led Reva to call the whole thing off. Roxy has since married D-Dubb, a mechanic twice her age. But she still pines for Reva and attempts to woo her during shift breaks.
Though Jensen’s program notes describe the volatility of the period—women who’d entered the wartime workforce were being forced out—she’s created an ultimately static narrative amid this background of change. Roxy doesn’t like her husband at the beginning and she doesn’t like him at the end; Reva rejects her at the play’s opening and again at the close. It’s thematically static, too. Jensen concerns herself with issues of silence and speech, what characters want to say and what they won’t, larding nearly every exchange with phrases such as “I can’t talk,” “She can’t talk,” “No need to talk.”
If only the characters would live by those inarticulate words. The script and director Joan Vail Thorne allow each actor only one note: Kevin O’Rourke’s D-Dubb is oafish, Karen Young’s Reva reserved, Lucy Deakins’s Roxy puppyish and petulant. Eventually, those four repeated notes become as tuneful as a jackhammer. Encouraging the actors in this simplistic take on the text isn’t the only error Thorne commits. She infuses scene changes with dramatic music and deadly earnest shadow plays of women lifting and striking heavy objects. The expressionist fillips (echoed somewhat in the set and lighting design) don’t mesh well with the naturalistic bathos and yuks that Thorne attempts to elicit during the scenes proper. No matter how many directorial tricks she employs, she can’t make these Rosies riveting.
If my double standard is tough on plays involving women, then a play created and staffed by men should pass muster more easily. But Conor McPherson’s Rum and Vodka would hold its liquor regardless. Scripted by McPherson at the tender age of 20, this coarse yarn follows a young father on a three-day drinking jag of epic proportions.
The Ohio Theatre offers a pay-what-you-will version of the titular cocktail at the bar, in case you want to up the mimetic effect. The concoction can’t be recommended, and neither can empathizing too strongly with its drinker. After hurling his computer terminal out of a window and through the windshield of his boss’s car, our narrator embarks on a puke-soaked quest to drink the pubs of Raheny dry. His bender includes drunken rage, an ABBA cover band, an injury perpetrated with a can of tuna, several episodes of violent illness, and erotic adventures with a rich Welsh slut.
Rum and Vodka, smartly directed by Samuel Buggeln, bears some of the hallmarks of an early work—creaky exposition and a certain glee at the shock value of the naughty bits. But it does possess the qualities that make McPherson’s later work so rewarding—an ability to capture characters who are unsparingly honest but emotionally inarticulate, self-aware but not at all self-knowing. Mark Alhadeff, a picture of dissipation, hints at these contradictions but doesn’t play against the text enough to get them across. Perhaps he’s too busy negotiating the Irish accent, which he well manages.
Alhadeff’s character may be an absolute wanker, but at least—unlike Jensen’s figures—he’s a three-dimensional wanker. Unfortunately, McPherson never seems to afford that richness to the women characters who flit in and out of his plays, typically offstage. Maria, the nagging if libidinous wife, and Myfanwy, the Welsh hussy, are no exceptions. Nevertheless, the scene in which our hero walks in on the latter being unceremoniously shagged is terrifically funny. And they say feminists don’t have a sense of humor.