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Sealed for Freshness

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Jennifer Dorr White, Nancy Horback (standing), J.J. Van Name (lying down), and Kate Vandevender.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Writing a show about Tupperware and calling it Sealed for Freshness is pretty much the theatrical equivalent of donning a "Kick Me" sign. So say what you will about Doug Stone, who's written and directed the show with exactly that title about exactly that subject that just opened at New World Stages, but he's got to be prepared for - if not outright inviting - jokes from critics and audiences alike.

I, however, am not so willing to oblige. While there are a few funny lines to be found in Sealed for Freshness, all of them delivered by an earthy dynamo in the cast named J.J. Van Name, this is for the most part a mirthless affair destined to set the women's movement - to say nothing of the theatre - back about 40 years. That's no laughing matter.

The story, such as it is, concerns a quartet of late-thirtysomething women who are so unhappy with the way they are being preserved in their own lives, they might as well be encased in plastic themselves. Bonnie Kapica (Jennifer Dorr White) feels unloved and unappreciated by her husband Richard (Brian Dykstra), whose eye strays more frequently now than it once did. Jean Pawlicki (Nancy Hornback) married rich, but can't buy her husband's fidelity. Her sister, Sinclair (Van Name), is a bile-spewing baby machine about to dispense her fifth. Diane Whettlaufer (Patricia Dalen) is the regional Tupperware-selling superstar who's taken several years too long to recover from her husband's passing on. The problem of the group's fifth member, Tracy Ann McClain (Kate Vandevender), might be the worst of all - she's too gosh-darn young and pretty to be taken seriously.

Once they all converge on Bonnie's house for Diane's acclaimed Tupper-spiel, it's only a matter of time until the claws come out: No one is exactly who she appears to be, and the five women refuse to settle for anything less than the absolute truth from each other. This leads to the requisite bitch-slaps (physical and verbal, thank you), discussions of gender consciousness (something approaching conflict erupts between homebody Sinclair and businesswoman Diane), of course tears, and the inevitable bra burning that proves they can all at least agree men are oppressive scum.

But with the exception of Rob Odorisio's set, which makes expressive art of a 1968 clueless-kitsch living room, there's not a hint of elegance present in the show. Stone's writing and direction don't wallow in mud so much as shower in it, and his tastes toward the lowbrow and the scatological sabotage whatever he's trying to say about the feminine social mystique. (Van Name's inevitable birthing scene is handled with especially little taste.) In fact, given Dykstra's grating performance as the unthinkably loutish Richard, which seems strangely civilized given most of the Lady of the Flies antics that follow, Stone's message seems to be that women are every bit as bad as men. That most of the actresses give performances about as stiff and unyielding as their hairdos or wigs to contrast Dykstra's discomfiting worminess lends some credence to that idea.

The sole exception is Van Name, who breathes into Sinclair an energizing hatefulness suggesting Archie Bunker freebasing estrogen. She spits out with spicy relish Sinclair's every paint-peeling recrimination, savaging everything from her husband and her kids to the women and their husbands, and even herself. Yet the actress unleashes the loathing with such impeccable timing and honesty that despite the pedantic air that eventually seeps into her nonstop barbs, Van Name becomes both more real and less insulting than the caricatures of late-60s womanhood surrounding her.

In one chilling second-act twist, she even earns your pity. Sinclair might be a fire-breathing monster, but it's not until an accidental admission in one particularly torrid storm of anger that you see how deep her rage has truly bored. And without relaxing the vitriol, Van Name shifts her focus inward to reveal a breathing, bleeding person inside the Godzilla getup.

It's in that moment, and that moment alone, that Stone and Van Name have created something closer to theatre than a canceled sitcom. Before and after that point, though, you're almost continually reminded of why Tupperware was invented in the first place: to prevent staleness, freezer burn, and just plain spoilage. There's far too much of all that throughout the rest of Sealed for Freshness.

Sealed for Freshness
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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