Live Theatre

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the theatrical book: throw together two opposites, who incongruously attract each other, show one slowly coming to resemble the other, then split them up to find out who learned or lost the most. Usually the two are the opposite sex as well as opposites in temperament (as in William Mastrosimone’s The Woolgatherer or Ron Elisha’s Two), but in John Ford Noonan’s play they’re A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. Lowbrow but sweet-tempered, this tour-de-talk makes a pleasant enough actors’ exercise and, at 90 minutes, is just long enough for what little it has to say. Still, I wish Noonan had put a few more fangs (as in Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women) into his too-ingratiating script. Besides, you’re always at least one step ahead of the action.

The talk happens in the kitchen of Maude Minks, a stereotypically uptight housewife living on Charlemagne Lane somewhere in Westchester County. It seems Maude’s idea of a good time is to dance when she thinks nobody’s looking. Otherwise she is so protective of her privacy that she mows the lawn late at night and doesn’t answer the phone on Mondays or get dressed on Wednesdays. Busy with his various fornications, her frequent flyer husband, Tyler, helps in his own way to preserve her solitude–by running off with a bimbo every other year; weirdly, he’s only hot for Maude when he’s breeding dogs.

Into Maude’s humdrum life bursts her brassy new neighbor, Hanna Mae. Sporting a Dolly Parton wig, clad in hip-hugging gold lame clam diggers, with a rhinestone-studded coke spoon dangling from her neck, this Texas emigre is like nothing Maude has ever seen. Forward but friendly, and louder even than the colors she wears, Hanna Mae just won’t take no for an answer–though Maude gives it over and over (“In Westchester we’ve earned the right to keep our distance,” et cetera).

Despite Maude’s hostility, Hanna Mae is intrigued by the secret life she senses this sourpuss is hiding (and by the dancing she observes while spying on her neighbor from across the street). She keeps coming back for more. Gradually, by telling Maude about the local men who secretly call her the “brunette bomb,” among other things, Hanna Mae melts down this frigid WASP (“Risk a smile!” she says). But more than anything, their husband problems bring the women together. Neither has any kids: Maude lacks the love, Hanna Mae the “plumbing.” When Hanna Mae’s Carl Joe, a lummox, beds Maude, this gives the wives new ground for mutual consolation, not an excuse for going for each other’s throats. And then Tyler commits one too many flagrant indiscretions, and at this point the women’s theme song could be “Stand up to your man.”

In a move straight out of Lysistrata, Hanna Mae moves in with Maude; together this odd couple shares a wild, Visa-charged weekend in New York. (And Maude discovers it’s “hard work being happy!”) By now she’s dressed as garishly as her girlfriend and can squeal as loudly as any Texas cheerleader. They seal their improbable friendship with a “blood bond”–meaning they’ll take the same train into town every Friday. The end of the play leaves wide open the question of whether this sisterly solidarity will persist: these dimly lit “chicks,” after all, will never pass for feminists, and anyway, oversexed Carl Joe has already lured the hungry Hanna Mae back to the love nest.

In this Live Theatre revival, director A.C. Thomas respects and even exploits the contrast between the characters without making them stereotypes. He’s gotten some powerhouse acting from Maryann Kelman, who’s Hanna Mae: dolled up in everything from polka-dot petticoats to a ruby-studded blouse, Kelman’s Hanna Mae is one big effervescent dingbat, with a slaphappy, chirpy charm and a smile as broad as Texas. (Even when Hanna Mae is weighed down by a cast–the result of a spat with Carl Joe–she has spunk to spare. And when she responds to Maude’s criticism of her wiggly walk by firmly answering, “I am not my walk,” you know there’s a person under those Day-Glo pedal pushers.)

As Maude, a woman whose apron has got to match her kitchen drapes, Marcia Riegel must make us believe in the 180-degree record-time reversal her character makes. No comedienne, Riegel overplays her character’s fairly unmotivated initial passivity (she makes no eye contact with the glad-handing invader, for example). And her repression, like her later liberation, feels a bit halfhearted, forced. Still, what shows through the shortfalls is the basic decency of the actress herself; when Maude stands up to Tyler, it’s a minor moral victory. These women clash with and comfort each other with a familiarity that couldn’t possibly breed in the viewer any contempt. It’s all essentially a trifle, but it is true.