Scripts make all the difference in Brainpeople and Curvy Widow
The two women invited to a mysterious dinner party in the American Conservatory Theatercommissioned Brainpeople have no idea why they're there. For some time we're not sure why we are either. After detouring into the uncharacteristically straightforward screenplays of The Motorcycle Diaries and Trade, playwright José Rivera is back in quirky magic-realist overdrive. Too much of this 80-minute one-act feels propelled by a willful eccentricity less delightful than pointless. There is a point, though and it's worth the wait.
Dressed-to-kill beauty Mayannah (Lucia Brawley) has summoned two houseguests to her Los Angeles manse, which is heavily fortified against the violent police state outside. Both are promised substantial monetary reward for their attendance, though it seems all they've got to do is arrive (via armored limo) and enjoy "the meal of your lives."
This must be too good to be true. Garrulous wallflower Ani (Sona Tatoyan) voices our suspicions by nervously inquiring if the huge platter o' mystery meat is, er, people. (It ain't, but it is something equally seldom masticated.) Fellow guest Rosemary (Rene Augesen) doesn't care what it is she is hungry. She also displays odd shifts in mood and accent, soon exposed as a whole cacophonous chorus of schizoid "brainpeople" taking turns à la Sybil with her body and behavior.
In Daniel Ostling's creepy-elegant dining room set, beautifully lit by Paul Whitaker, all three women reveal their demons via flamboyant yet unfelt monologues. Augesen in particular contorts through multivoice fireworks more actor punitive than audience rewarding. But Rivera and director Chay Yew's premiere production are heading somewhere. When the "miracle" Mayannah hoped would occur this evening does, performers and play transcend all prior filigreed excess. Brainpeople ends on a sustained grace note that's unsettling, poignant, and haunting.
There's just one woman's voice revealing all in Curvy Widow, the Cybill Shepherd showcase that's opened here after a reportedly very rough Atlanta tryout and considerable retooling. But it's the kind that can suck air out of a room all by itself.
A first playwriting effort by Bobby Goldman, widow of stage and screen writer James Goldman (The Lion in Winter), this plotless autobiographical monologue is the precise equivalent of an experience everybody suffers sometime: you're stuck with that worst-case-scenario stranger who views every social contact as a passive admirer to regale with dazzling banter about their adventures, knowledge, professional stature, and general fabulousness. Yet all you're hearing is the deafening roar of hot air. Under such circumstances even an elevator ride can seem interminable. Curvy Widow is 90 minutes long.
Shepherd's "character" (the program leaves no doubt that Goldman "IS The Curvy Widow") is a 57-year-old professional fixer who does everything from choose furniture to chase squirrels out of the house, enabling other rich folk to do zilch for themselves. Her meant-to-be-hilarious dating travails include many descriptions of men who are rude, unattractive, "dumb as posts," or otherwise less than worthy of her. But just what does the widow deserve? Not jury duty, vaginal dryness, or various other complaints that amazingly made it into this revised script. It's true men get away easier with being pushy and abrasive they're "ballsy," not "bitchy." But when women like Goldman and (in interviews) Shepherd celebrate having those qualities as empowerment, are they inverting a stereotype or just making excuses for being spoiled jerks?
There are a handful of funny lines, plus others Shepherd sells as funny. One can't really blame her mostly awkward performance, Scott Schwartz's direction, or the ugly physical production for everything else. You want to tell the Curvy Widow, "Shaddap and get a vibrator." But she already has an autopleaser. This play is the ultimate act of self-love.
Thurs/14Sat/16, 8 p.m. (also Sat/16, 2 p.m.), $12.50$20.50
221 Fourth St., SF
Through March 9
Wed.Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat., 3 p.m.); Sun., 3 and 7 p.m.; $50$75
Post Street Theatre
450 Post, second floor, SF