Do you understand why the following line is funny, and not just ha-ha funny, but howlingly, foot-stampingly, stop-the-show-for-30-seconds-flat funny: “When you start wearing Eileen Fisher you might as well say, ‘I give up.’”
If your answer is yes, then you should immediately buy your tickets for Delia and Nora Ephron’s new play at the Westside Theatre Downstairs, which is based on the book of the same title by Ilene Beckerman. If you have a keen ken of exactly why clothes make the woman - and what they make her - then you’re appropriately armed for this sensitively sartorial comic ride. And, hey, guys: If your wife or girlfriend gets that joke, take her to see the show - she'll probably have a great time.
As for everyone else... Well, it’s not that there’s nothing of value for the fashion-challenged in this 85-minute exposé of how and why women dress the ways they do. There are some bits of wit and insight you don’t need to be a Vera Wang aficionado to appreciate. And the cast is, and will likely continue to be, a fun and glitzy group: The current company, playing through October 18, is Tyne Daly, Rosie O’Donnell, Samantha Bee, Katie Finneran, and Natasha Lyonne; after that, additional big-name actresses like Mary Louise Wilson, Kristin Chenoweth, Rhea Perlman, and Rita Wilson will step in.
But this Vagina Monologues takeoff - or, if you prefer, cover-up - otherwise has inescapably limited appeal for anyone who thinks clothes are something you throw on rather than obsess over. The Sisters Ephron used Beckerman’s book as a starting point from which to conduct their personal investigation into their own (and their friends’) relationships with clothing, and have filled this show, which has been directed to the utmost of based-on-true-events readers-theatre heights by Karen Carpenter, with the results of their research. Taken whole, it’s not going to appeal to everyone.
The most touching and universal of the recollections is the one that’s lifted almost directly from Beckerman’s book: “Gingy’s Story,” a multipart dialogue in which Daly (with the help of large poster-board diagrams kept on a dress rack) runs down the fashion runway of her life explaining the significance of every outfit she wore at all of her most significant milestones. Daly’s at-ease, highly maternal delivery gives each of her speeches the comfy feeling of flipping through a photo album with your grandmother and learning all sorts of amazing things about people you thought you knew or that you know you didn’t.
Otherwise, the evening moves in fits and starts, like a shoe model with one wobbly heel. Finneran has a heartfelt little speech about a breast cancer survivor coveting her first custom-made underwire following reconstructive surgery. O’Donnell gets a bewildering amount of comic mileage out of a five-minute rant about the eternal problems of purses. Ruminations about subjects as diverse as black (in which costume designer Jessica Jahn has clad everyone), boots, closets, prom gowns, and even the brides dressing for a lesbian wedding round out the show to varying degrees of success.
There are no complete misfires to be found within any of the stories, and they just about all can function (for people like me, anyway) as a fascinating window into a truly foreign world. But if you’re on the outside of the circle of knowledge the Ephrons are celebrating, it can be something of a slog - the highlights that transcend gender boundaries are few, far between, and nestled snugly into the last third or so of the show. The opening-night cast made the experience as painless as possible, however, and there’s no reason to believe that their up-and-coming replacements won’t be able to do the same. The material is specific enough to women, but general enough in every other way that it’s playable by anyone.
And, judging by the energized reactions of the (apparently) predominantly female audience at the performance I attended, understandable by anyone, or at least those with the right number of X chromosomes. There’s box office gold in that thar appeal, so don’t be surprised if Love, Loss, and What I Wore hangs around Off-Broadway for a while. Like black, some things just don’t go out of style. Or so the Ephrons tell me. After all, I didn’t get the Eileen Fisher joke.
Love, Loss, and What I Wore