Men are dogs, the sisterhood needs solidarity, it's time for women everywhere to give their sexist-pig companions a good swift kick. These were talking points in 1980, the year that John Ford Noonan's A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking premiered on Broadway. A quarter-century later, are they still relevant? Or are they starting to take on the sepia tones of old suffragette posters?
Noonan has a knack for getting us interested in characters who act in unexpected ways. We open with a woman doing housework in an upscale kitchen that clearly doesn't need any housework done in it. A red fright wig -- with curious face attached -- pops up in the windowpane over the sink. Next thing you know, Hannah Mae has invited herself in for coffee and more self-revelation than Maude the Perfect Hausfrau had bargained for. And we're off and running through six days of twists and reversals as plain-talkin' Southern blustery nosiness confronts repressed Yankee keeping-up of all appearances.
But the week doesn't simply bring a clash of stereotypes -- Noonan ensures that his pair of desperate housewives don't respond On the Nose when their husbands do them wrong. Or when they decide to fight back against the big lunks (ghost characters who are discussed but never seen). Between husband and wife, which one's the ball and chain? In this Interplayers production (through March 26), it's an unresolved question.
Showing the same kind of gumption she did as Kate Thunder in Wild Oats (and in other roles at Idaho Repertory Theater in Moscow), Erica Chiles-Curnutte commands the stage with the quirkiness of her Hannah Mae Bindler impersonation. That's a genuine Texas twang, pardner, and Chiles-Curnutte knows how to slice through the butter of polite protestations with the hot knife of bluntness.
With her hips cocked to one side, elbows held aloft and wrists flopping, her face contorted in a sneering appraisal, Chiles-Curnutte sizes up Karen Nelson's Maude and decides pretty quickly that she doesn't much like what she sees. Don't you lie to me, girl, she hints, getting all familiar in the manner of brand-new neighbors in sitcoms. Yet by her second appearance -- in pink pedal pushers and heels, with a green blouse, her hair teased like lacquered seaweed -- Hannah Mae has won over the audience, and Chiles-Curnutte has established that she can teeter on the ledge of caricature without falling.
Nanci Haskin's costumes help tell the story of how these two women change over the course of a week -- a dozen outfits in all. Haskin switches Hannah Mae from flashy orange floral-print pants to electric colors with neon scarves to a sensible blue suit. Maude, meanwhile, first appears in a proper tea-length dress with flouncy white apron, a sort of proto-Martha. After she declines into pajamas and robe, Maude's flounciness reappears when she returns from a celebration in a formal double-layer chiffon skirt in pastels, hemmed handkerchief-style.
With six scenes, the two women's relationship developing in unexpected ways, and long scene breaks obviously extended as covers for costume changes, this show practically begs us to pay attention to what its characters are wearing. And where they're positioned: With its wrought iron accents and goldenrod appliances, Ken Smith's set gives us that '70s show-off kind of House Beautiful kitchen.
Seattle's Karen Nelson, impressive in three previous Interplayers shows, is mostly so here. With throaty voice and regal manner, overscheduled but still taking time to arrange her freshly baked cookies just so, she's got the repressed housewife side of Maude down. And we observe Maude's party-girl potential right from the outset, with Nelson as the prim housewife, folding her laundry while grinding her pelvis to the sounds of Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible." Perhaps she's hampered by director Troy Nickerson, who lets the opening pantomime go on long after it has made its point: We get that Ms. Hair-Pulled-Back is capable of letting her hair down.
Later in the show, Maude's speech about her husband's dog training habits speaks volumes about a woman who narrowly regards sex as dirty, animalistic, vengeful. So we grasp that the matron needs to step out and love the nightlife. But Nelson is less forceful with the self-validating, liberated half of Maude's character. Perhaps there's an imbalance built into the show. Hannah Mae uses bluster to cover up the rifts in her marriage; in her quiet way, by contrast, Maude sublimates her marital difficulties, throwing herself into volunteer work -- anything to distract herself from the kind of unpleasantness that Hannah Mae likes to sniff out.
The housewife with jangling bracelets, the housewife with her hands neatly folded -- which one will the audience watch more? As hilarious as Chiles-Curnutte can be, perhaps over the course of the run Nickerson can rein in one of his housewives and let the other run free.
The final reconciliation of Mae and Maude, Total Opposites, arrives too neatly: Invasion of space, multiple infidelities, marital squabbles, major life changes, a trip to the big city and way too many cups of coffee result in ... near-instantaneous reconciliation, cross our hearts and hope to die, bound by the unity of sisterhood forevermore.
Still, with humor and insight, Nickerson uses inter-scene music (Sinatra, Tammy Wynnette, ABBA and more) to comment on the action. One of Nickerson's between-the-scenes ditties merrily informs the women in the audience that "If you've ever wanted love from men, what you get is nothin'."
Noonan's pair of white chicks aren't about to be content with nothin'. They don't just sit around and they don't just talk -- they dance and hug and validate one another. But Noonan has shaped and balanced their character reversals too neatly. The abundant comedy in this 90-minute Interplayers production may not leave us any wiser, but at least, for most of the night, we're sitting around laughing.
Publication date: 03/10/05