Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Review of Nice People Theatre's production of "Killing Women," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Three women, struggling their way through workplace filled with sexism, glass ceilings, and eventually beat the odds and the rule of their male bosses, rising half-heartedly, to some satisfaction and a place at the top.

Though it sounds familiar, it’s not Nine to Five, or even Working Girl, but a piece of theatre, in this case, the allegorical comedy Killing Women by Marisa Wegrzyn, in production at this year’s Fringe by the Nice People Theatre Company.

Killing Women centers around the lives of three professional hit-women. Gwen (Miriam White), married to an assassin, enjoyed her tenure as a stay at home mom, and never wanted anything to do with her husband’s career, though she possesses a real knack for offing people. Abby (Annie Erickson), on the other hand, killed her one true love in order to pursue a career to the top, only to run against the glass ceiling that exists even in the murdering business. Lucy (Nicole Blicher), lies somewhere in between the two. Vaguely interested in her job (but refusing to use guns, as the trigger breaks her nails), she uses her job contacts to meet potential boyfriends, only to find her work a nuisance when her contract requires their deaths.

As allegories go, well, there’s probably a reason that Aesop composed his fables about humans with animal characters. Besides the over-used vehicle that Wegrzyn’s play adopts (society has long described business as “making a killing,” or their jobs as being “murder out there”), the overlap between what these women do in their work, and the actual business world situation becomes too confusing in her play.

For while it’s clear that women, like Abby, must often drop an early romance to pursue a promising career (nicely drawn in her back story about her first kill), the play confuses in Gwen’s substituting murder for divorce (doesn’t fit) and glosses over reality when substituting a this-or-that choice in Gwen having to pick a career or family life, ignoring the reality of millions of women who shift comfortably and effectively between these two worlds. And Lucy’s inability to date business contacts because they’re business points to a dated problem in the work world.

Which isn’t to say that this play is without its charms, or that this production suffers under the undue weight of an overbearing heavy-handedness. Thankfully, it’s a comedy, which Nice People Theatre takes full advantage of in their laugh-out-loud production. Wegrzyn shows a real knack for humorous one-liners (“you make me wish I was autistic”), and she cleverly spoofs business management style textbooks with advice to not “get involved with anyone you have to kill,” and “every job has its shit and you have to learn to cope or you don’t get a paycheck.”

Of course, not all of this is well-effected either—White and Blicher show subtlety in their delivery, while Erickson’s a hit or miss—sometimes her coarse attitude serves the humor well, at other times, she’s one gritty F-bomb away from making the audience feel too uncomfortable to laugh at anything. Luckily, when character laughs are needed, Chris Fluck’s big grinning moron Mike produces a laugh-riot every time he appears on stage as a dimwitted haiku-writing killer.

When it comes to handling the allegory itself though, director Bill Felty misfires, only partially exercising the obvious knack he displayed for over-the-top comedy in his recent direction of Valhalla. Instead, he splits the difference on the treatment the play calls for—opting for humor, but of a straightforward kind, when the overall intent of the play, as any allegory, clearly requires a touch of absurdity, as no one will believe it otherwise. Moreover, most of the confusions mentioned earlier would diminish in a less sincere treatment of the script.

Only Pat DeFusco’s well played Mike Hammer clone of a boss, Fluck’s goofiness, Ben Stanley’s Antonio Banderas inspired Johnny Duke, and White’s milksop of a housewife-turned-killer add the right atmosphere to the play. Erickson’s too literally forceful, and while Blicher shows the most talent of the three women, she applies it in the wrong direction, opting for a sincere love-struck girl torn between her heart and her career, and not doing enough with the sheer ridiculousness of her role. A line like “cold calculation is barbaric and doesn’t suit me,” uttered sincerely, just doesn’t fit—or rather it does, but only at the expense of believability.

As a result, long, long stretches of semi-seriousness become flat streaks of boredom between the play’s peaks of humor (particularly the overly long “chemical killing” scene). Part of this does rest on Wegrzyn, who shuffles fast-paced, clearly goofy vignettes of scenes in between longer, expository or character-detailing passages, a rhythm that by itself is enough to distort the enjoyment of her play.

In the play’s send-up of women’s struggles in the workplace, Killing Women scores as a boisterous comedy spoofing modern life. But whenever Wegrzyn or Felty take the allegory too seriously, Nice People’s uneven production made it appear more like the ups and downs of a business cycle—great when riding the crests, the rest of the time in a recession waiting for the humor to build again.

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