Our female protagonist is Celeste, who has returned home to Illinois after having been the only one in her family to go off to college. Celeste is a nerd to the bone. Played by Sara Rue, Celeste has got all the trimmings of a stereotypical female nerd - big black glasses, a snort when she laughs, a speech impediment, and bizarre philosophical thoughts that come spilling out of her incomprehensibly. She even sits with her knees together and her feet pigeon-toed, in the Universally Recognized Position of Awkwardness. She also oozes sweetness and innocence, which makes her sympathetic to the audience. When Celeste appears on the scene, her mother - a straight-talking waitress named Faye - doesn't want Celeste to stay in her house ("Men don't like women who read," she complains) and Celeste eventually finds herself sharing the small studio apartment rented by her sister Bernadette (also a waitress).
As is clear from the show's advertising, Celeste is eventually going to fall in love with Victor, the local mall security guard, played by French Stewart. Victor is also awkward. He is slow when he talks, frequently starting sentences with an "Oh, yah" that sounds like he's auditioning for a sequel to Fargo. Stewart's best work is in the details. You can read thoughts going across his face just a little slower than they should normally travel. When Victor dances, it isn't that his movements are off the beat, it's that there's nothing natural about them; Victor has clearly watched other people dance and is trying to duplicate the moves as best he can. Victor lives in an old dilapidated auto shop. Although he normally lives alone, he is convinced to share his home with Watson, an abrasive jerk who talks a big game, although the only person whom he seems capable of manipulating is Victor.
Victor and Celeste come together when Bernadette catches Watson's eye, and the four go out on a double date. Victor and Celeste have an instant connection based on being misfits. The script, which goes to rather darker places in the second act, is sometimes as awkward as its main characters. When Watson talks his way into Bernadette's bed, Celeste finds herself without a place to stay and, of course, is offered a roof over her head by Victor. One wonders why she doesn't go back to her mother's house. It's hard to believe Faye's discomfort at Celeste's presence would translate into allowing her daughter to go live in a condemned garage with that creepy guy from the mall.
The show also seems to go out of its way to have its two young ladies in their slips as often as possible, with Celeste and Bernadette getting dressed or undressed frequently. In fact, at one point in the second act, Bernadette enters a scene for pretty much the sole purpose of asking Celeste to take off her dress. It is, as it happens, the very worst possible moment for Celeste to disrobe, and Bernadette's request comes off as a completely implausible excuse for Celeste to strip again. (On reflection, it is possible that Bernadette's request was character-driven; if it was, the scene was completely misdirected.)
The play takes place in 1982. There are reasons for this beyond Bernadette's heavy purple eye shadow, but the occasional '80s reference is generally good for a laugh. The show's songs range widely in quality, with strong upbeat tunes opening each act, and several nondescript ballads failing to make an impact.
Stewart and Rue easily convey their characters' social difficulties, but they run up against a script that too often forces them to play trite, rather than real, characteristics. Rue is required to play Celeste as a grown-up woman who stumbles over her own feet when wearing high heels; Stewart has to play a guy who is scripted to transpose his initial consonants when talking to a girl. (In the show's worst song, "Why," Victor's inability to put his thoughts into words is echoed by his inability to put them into song, and Stewart has to inarticulately sing short phrases over and over again.) These things have been done to death, and Rue and Stewart are both capable performers who deserve much better.
Little Egypt runs at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood through June 11, 2006. For tickets, call (323) 852-1445.
The Matrix Theatre Company - Joseph Stern Producer - presents Little Egypt. Written by Lynn Siefert; Music & Lyrics by Gregg Lee Henry; Directed by Lisa James. Set Designer James Carhart; Lighting Designer J. Kent Inasy; Costume Designer Vicki Sanchez; Sound Designer Brian Mohr; Properties Designer Chuck Olsen; Stage Manager Corey Womack; Publicist David Elzer/DEMAND PR; Managing Director Matthew Hannon; Associate Producer Drew Brody.