Also see Sharon's review of Leap
Gary Socol's new play, having its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, looks to have been titled Bicoastal Woman because Bipolar Woman would have been too tough of a sell. But a misleading title (and an advertising campaign that shies away from mental illness) cannot make this mess of a play go down any easier.
The plot centers around Glenda, a manic-depressive book editor who, after going off her medications, finally decides to get out of her loveless marriage. Her support network consists of one person, her best friend Joy, a clinically-depressed makeup artist who dresses in black to fit her mood and frequently has meaningless sex with strangers. Two things immediately happen to jump-start the action: Glenda gets hit on by Paul, the building's doorman, who asks her out as soon as he's confirmed her husband is out of the picture; and Glenda goes into a manic phase, soon to be followed by a depressed phase.
The play fails on nearly every level. It starts off as a comedy, hiding Glenda's mental illness for a scene or two, and aiming to be an upper-class-New-Yorkers-whining-about-life sort of endeavor in the mold of Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Socol's comedic writing isn't up to the task - the zingers exchanged are more often than not simply rude insults - and the characters come off as too self-absorbed to be actually likeable. When the show moves into drama, with Glenda's decline into suicidal depression, it still fails. While the play has a few moments of eloquence describing the despair of depression, for the most part, it is devoid of any emotionally-grabbing scenes. Here, the failure to create Glenda as a more likeable character is a fatal mistake. Glenda indisputably has a disease which is worthy of our sympathy and understanding, but it's hard to like someone who has shown herself to be such an intellectual snob.
While it is possible that some depressed people behave like Glenda and Joy, the show's plot depends on a portrayal of people with mental disorders as those who stop their medication when they should know better, or pop pills like they're candy. The plot also requires some pretty stupid and selfish behavior, which is out of character for these people who are supposed to care about each other.
Director Jenny Sullivan stages the play awkwardly, with characters frequently facing downstage and not making eye contact when they're talking with each other. Susan Clark plays Glenda with little realism, frequently giving off little sighs that sound scripted and putting both hands to her cheeks (like Macaulay Culkin) for emphasis. William Katt as Paul is called upon to take a lot of verbal abuse from both women, but still be the rock they need in their lives. He gives an even portrayal, but doesn't convincingly show us the spark of a connection. Chloé Webb as Joy walks with tiny mincing steps that make sense when she's wearing high heels and a tight skirt, but is a ridiculous affectation when she's more comfortably clad. But it is Webb who, in the second act, manages to read a single line with such soul-baring pain, she wouldn't be more exposed if she was standing there naked.
Mention should be made of Gary Wissman's set, a very detailed, very expensive New York apartment. It's lovely and well done, but ultimately fails to serve the play. A certain set piece plays a significant part in the second act, but it is placed on the stage in such a way that its performance goes largely unnoticed. One might almost think the set was designed before the play was finished.
Discrepancies between the show's ads and the play itself also suggest recent rewrites (the season announcement on the back of the program describes Glenda as a "in her late forties," and "newly divorced," although the script unambiguously makes her fifty-three and newly separated). Perhaps, with more work, Bicoastal Woman will be a worthwhile piece, but the version on display at the Pasadena Playhouse is far from ready.
Bicoastal Woman plays at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 1, 2003. For tickets, call 626-356-7529. pasadenaplayhouse.org
Pasadena Playhouse, State Theatre of California; Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla White, Executive Director; proudly presents the world premiere of Bicoastal Woman by Gary Socol. Scenic Design by Gary Wissmann; Costume Design by Ela Jo Erwin; Lighting Design by Paulie Jenkins; Original Music and Sound Design by Steven Cahill; Casting by Ernest A. Figueroa; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Stage Manager Kathleen J. Parsons. Directed by Jenny Sullivan.