At the center of the action are Regan (Tracee Chimo), Gena (Katherine Waterston), and Katie (Celia Keenan-Bolger), who have gathered in a sumptuously appointed Fifth Avenue hotel room (the gorgeous work of set designer Andromache Chalfant) to send off bride-to-be Becky in high low style. Alcohol is plentiful — Becky’s ultra-rich fiancée has loaded the bathtub with 15 bottles of premium Champagne — and drugs (pot, cocaine, and prescription) are always close at hand. It has all the makings of a night to remember — if maybe not for the right reasons.
There’s just one problem: Becky didn’t want maid of honor Regan to invite terminal party-drunk Katie and Gena (with whom she had a problematic run-in with Becky’s brother) to the party. Becky didn’t even invite them to the wedding. They’re a reminder of a time she’d rather forget as she moves on to her swank new life in the upper class with the moderately good-looking Cal — and her immediate history with Gena isn’t exactly rosy, either. Regan’s also brought along a couple of men, Jeff and Joe (Eddie Kaye Thomas and Fran Kranz) to lighten the mood, and they’re of course there for only one thing—which the women wouldn’t necessarily mind.
This may all sound fairly conventional, and in some ways it is. But the jokes are unusually smart — Jeff has an uproarious one camouflaged as a lecture on World War II geopolitics (no, really!), and three words from Gena in the final scene may rank as the funniest line you’ll hear on any stage, anywhere this year — and speak to the erudition, both real and imagined, that these women want to define them in their late 20s. More often than not, the laughs erupt so naturally from their surroundings that you don’t even notice you’ve hit one until you realize you can’t stop chuckling. This happens time and time again, but in the end is merely one function of a much more substantial study of these people: Headland and Cullman keep the emphasis on the story’s darkness rather than its light, so this never feels like a garden-variety girls-behaving-badly gagfest.
Take for example, the outstanding Chimo: She was a hilarious revelation last fall as a young acting student in Circle Mirror Transformation, but here plays a woman who’s infinitely less innocent and even an openly malicious troublemaker. Yet behind every catty action, every bleating recrimination of everyone and everything around her, are the echoes of a woman who doesn’t know how to cope with the hand she’s been dealt. Bitterly jealous of Becky (Regan has been dating a med student for three years, and was sure she’d march down the aisle first), she’s turned to drugs and drink as a way to mask her desolation. Yet she must keep up appearances, and the war between who she’s become and who she wants to project gives Chimo choice ammunition. She tempers Regan’s rage with a withering comic delivery that keeps you wondering whether she’s serious or mocking. You understand exactly why she attracts people — and repels them.
Katie is another cipher: Is she a young woman who doesn’t know what she wants, has she become addicted to living life on the edge, or does she mean it when she says “I want to die and I can’t bring myself to do it”? Keenan-Bolger deftly plays all three possibilities, especially in a late-show plot twist that forces you to view the ostensibly good-natured good-time-girl in a more sobering light. As for Gena, she’s both the enabler and the problem solver (she can snap Katie out of any drunken reverie), with her own affection for cocaine — which she does more often than she may let on. Yet Waterston envisions her as the most honest, most naïve of the three, leaving the question forever open as to whether not pretending to live a different life is a wise or a foolhardy defense mechanism.
So intricately drawn, in both writing and performance, are the women (as Herlihy plays her, Becky is also a titanic, controlling presence within a soft-spoken shell), that the men feel like afterthoughts. Yes, they’re intended as the evening’s entertainment, but they’re more passive than active participants in the life-changing events of the evening, and that makes them loose components of an otherwise tight-knit whole. Thomas adopts an appealingly coy version of a sexy swagger, and Kranz nicely maneuvers a few tender moments when he falls for one of the women. But Headland views the men much as the women do — as time-killers—and leaves them out of the pattern of social evolution that the play otherwise handsomely documents.
Bachelorette might be technically stronger if Headland gave the guys a more significant airing, but it could scarcely be improved upon at capturing a snapshot of the most destructive of female mindsets at the late-20s turning point. The four women are haunted by certain parts of their pasts, yes, but they’ve all found ways to escape those ghosts. Hiding from the specters they once considered friends, however, is much more difficult and dangerous. They know each other too well to hide, so why bother trying? Headland’s response to them is at the core of Bachelorette’s considerable success: Good question.