Also see Richard's review of Scorched
Everyone knows about the glass ceiling, that invisible barrier that keeps women from getting above a certain level in their chosen profession no matter how good their work. Vice president yes, CEO no.
True enough for conventional professions, but what if the same rules applied to the mob? That's the idea behind Killing Women, a comedy by Washington University grad Marisa Wegrzyn. It's a promising concept that provides lots of comic opportunities to criticize the corporate workplace and sex-role stereotypes.
Abby (Julie Layton) and Lucy (Kine Brown) use opposing strategies to make their way in the man's world of killers-for-hire. Abby tries to out-macho the guys, while Lucy uses feminine wiles to snare her pray, then dispatches them by lethal injection.
A reluctant addition to this sisterhood, Gwen (Lauren Dusek) is a mom who sends her cheating husband to the next world with a single shot through the forehead. She was perfectly happy on the mommy track, but talent is a terrible thing to waste.
Their boss, Ramone (Peter Mayer), sees women as inherently second-rate performers: he's somewhat willing to tolerate their unconventional ways and acknowledge their successes, but the plum assignments and ensuing promotions are reserved for men.
This is definitely a play about women: Ramone's part is too small to make real use of Peter Mayer's talents, and the other two actors play comic dimwits. Mike (Cale Haupert) is a screw-up with a talent for wrecking cars and writing really bad poetry, and Adam Flores plays three minor roles (two victims, one boyfriend) with charm.
Killing Women is a comedy with a serious purpose: questioning stereotypes about men and women and who gets to define acceptable behavior in the workplace. That's a difficult feat to pull off. Paul Rudnick was not entirely successful in Regrets Only (currently playing at Stray Dog Theatre) and screenwriter/director Diane English crashed and burned in her big-budget remake of The Women.
Wegrzyn's play falls somewhere between those two poles. Her writing is sharp and often wickedly funny, but based on obvious stereotypes which limit the cast's ability to create characters the audience can care about. Her attempt to show growth in Abby's character seems to belong in another play entirely. Or did I miss the memo which specified that all plays about women now have to include an uplifting, explicitly didactic element?
In the interests of full disclosure, I must reveal that I saw Killing Women at a Saturday matinee (such is the harried life of the theatre critic), and perhaps the cast was not at their best on that sunny weekend afternoon. On the other hand, if you're going to sell tickets, you should give people their money's worth.
Anyway, the HotCity production is sort of like the play itself: not great, not terrible. The technical elements are all strong. Sean M. Savoie built an attractive, Mondrian-inspired set which emphasized the surrealistic aspects of the play and facilitated the many scene changes. Sound design by Alexa Shoemaker and light design by Savoie complement the play, which is written as a series of blackout scenes punctuated by music. Costumes by Scott Breihan immediately (and often humorously) identify each character in terms of type.
But overall the production is unsatisfying, and while it's always hard to diagnose such difficulties from the outside, in this case I suspect the author, director and actors all deserve their share of the blame.
The biggest problem is the absence of laughter. If Killing Women isn't funny, it doesn't work at all. Many of Wegrzyn's funniest lines fall flat, lending credence to the dictum that dying is easy but comedy is hard. It's even harder if you don't relax, deliver your lines, and give the audience a chance to react. Is comic acting not included in the curricula of theatre schools these days? One wonders, if only because the Stray Dog production of Regrets Only has many of the same problems.
Julie Layton in particular is working way too hard as Abby. It's hard to watch someone so consistently overwrought as her character, and it's even harder to laugh with them. Layton is also saddled with the task of showing her character grow beyond her initial limitations, without the playwright supplying much evidence that it's really happening. The other roles are less complex and the actors are more successful in them. But timing was frequently a problem in the performance I attended; perhaps that will clear up over the run of the play.
Killing Women will continue through October 4th at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in St. Louis. Ticket information is available from the company website or from 314-289-4060.
Author: Marisa Wegrzyn
* Denotes member of Actors of Equity, the association of professional actors and stage managers in the USA.