by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & espite all of this production's leg warmers and hefty cordless phones (with pull-out antennas!) -- despite the Members Only jackets, the women's shoulder pads, and a soundtrack filled with Lauper, Bowie, Newton-John and America's "You Can Do Magic" -- Wendy Wasserstein's Isn't It Romantic hasn't aged too badly since its revised version appeared in 1983. (The original premiered in '79.) Women are still trying to juggle careers, husbands and kids while defending themselves against their parents' accusing stares.
In fact, all the Yiddish kvetching of this very New York Jewish comedy (at the Civic's Studio Theatre through Nov. 11) presents more obstacles for a West Coast audience in connecting with this work than does its quarter-century-old vintage. This is the story of two best friends in the Big Apple: Janie Blumberg (Rebecca McNeil) and Harriet Cornwall (Juli Wellman). Janie -- schlumpy, a freelance writer, quick to fend off emotional remarks with a one-liner -- presents quite a contrast to Harriet -- a career woman like her demanding mother, always well dressed, always falling for the wrong kind of man. It's part of this play's charm that Janie is the one who attracts the eligible bachelor while Harriet wastes time with men who are beneath her. And yet, when it comes time to contemplate marriage -- well, both these women have their self-destructive tendencies.
Though this is a production that will get better, it has noticeable problems right now. Dropped lines, long pauses, missed cues, underemphasized emotional beats -- there were far too many of those on opening night, though presumably they'll fall away over the course of the run. As if director Todd Jasmin didn't already have his hands full with an overcrowded set and all those scene shifts, costume changes and long voice-mail messages, he even had to take over one of the key roles. As Janie's boyfriend (a nice Jewish doctor, she should be so lucky), Jasmin capably filled in for Mark Hodgson on opening weekend. In fact, Jasmin's aw-shucks, understated demeanor worked extremely well in portraying a humble high-achiever.
Probably the biggest revelation here (to Spokane audiences, not to those in Coeur d'Alene, who already know her work) is the talent of Rebecca McNeill as Janie in the surrogate-for-Wasserstein role. McNeill overuses some gestures -- hands to the forehead in shock, arms extended in pleading -- and she misses how Janie uses comedy to keep people at arm's length, but she's got the disheveled, creative-type look down, and she's persuasive when it comes to expressing affection toward her maddening parents and uncertain friend.
Despite the slow pace and glitches, there are already some good moments in this show. The energy level rises just before intermission during a scene cross-cut between the two apartments, with Janie's parents playing matchmaker while their daughter frantically tries to cook a chicken and her friend starts making kissy-face with a sleazy marketing exec. The Blumbergs share a nice, genuine-seeming family hug. The shorthand-conversation closeness of the two best friends failed to come out in an opening park bench scene and later on as well, but at least there's a nice welcome-to-your-new-apartment ritual in which Wellman, for once, shares genuine sisterhood with Janie.
In supporting roles, Dave Rideout succeeds in making playgoers despise his callous sleazeball. As a Russian immigrant in a bit role, Jhon Goodwin darts his eyes about frantically, trying to make sense of all these fast-talking Amerikanskis. As Janie's parents, J.P. O'Shaughnessy and Evelyn Renshaw are eccentric but warm-hearted. But Jackie Davis' regal career woman -- Harriet's mother -- by being too aloof and remote, drags down the energy in a couple of scenes. With faster pacing, some of Lillian Cornwall's one-liners would regain their sharpness.
Dorene Hodin's props clutter an overstuffed set: two detailed and contrasting apartments, along with neutral playing areas upstage. Costumers Susan Berger and Jan Wanless make the stylish women in this show look rich and trendy, but there's a sense that all the costume changes and confined playing areas exceed what a black box theater can handle. For example, one repeated and resonant line -- a mother casually criticizing her daughter's hairstyle -- fell flat both times it was delivered because the actors didn't have enough room for the physical and emotional contact needed to make the moment register.
The final image -- Janie dancing in celebration of herself and her own independence, with career/men/kids deemed desirable but not essential -- gains poignance from Wasserstein's death in February from lymphoma. She was only 55. She never needed the man, had to wait until her late 40s to adopt a child -- but oh, what a career. She wrote plays that make us smile, and her infectious giggle at the silliness of life still echoes in a lot of theaters.