Circle Theatre

By way of illustrating the importance of point of view in comedy, Del Close once commented that the problem with Joan Rivers was that her jokes, though sometimes funny, never really added up to a consistent worldview. This failing was never more clear than in her truly awful 1978 film Rabbit Test, about the first man to become pregnant. Given a golden opportunity to comment on gender roles in America, Rivers squandered it on mildly humorous sight gags–Billy Crystal looking very pregnant–and lots of predictable sitcom shtick about gynecologists and morning sickness.

Given the same opportunity in He’s Having Her Baby, Joan Lipkin and Tom Clear do what Rivers never had the ovaries to do: create a work bristling with subversive criticism of society and male-female relations.

Instead of merely snickering over the rather simpleminded premise, Lipkin and Clear create an alternate comic universe where the gender roles are completely switched. In their world women make all the rules and men must conform to traditional women’s roles–they’re asked out on dates, get pregnant, do all the cleaning and cooking, are left with only the lowest-paying secretarial jobs.

Even if you didn’t know that Lipkin’s theater, That Uppity Theatre, is easily the most radical (and most interesting) in Saint Louis, Lipkin and Clear’s point of view is clear two minutes into the opening number of this musical comedy. Two teenage boys, cheerleader Joey and his nerdy friend Nathan, sit by the phone and sing, “When you are 15 / And you are looking for a date / Seems like all you do is wait.” Across the stage a gang of boisterous girls in black leather jackets shove each other around, brag about their latest conquests, or shout to each other, “Hey, woman, we should get some beers!”

He’s Having Her Baby follows the life of the cute but spacey Joey, whose life goes off track after he’s seduced and abandoned by Liz. Left pregnant by his single encounter with her–“Maybe she didn’t pull off in time”–Joey discovers his options are severely limited. A member of the church’s all-female clergy cautions him against committing the sin of abortion, and Liz refuses to make an honest man of him. He has no choice but to carry the fetus to term and then face the uphill battle of being a single father in a society that believes a family consists of a father and a mother.

One of the delights of this script is the subtle way the authors have changed the dialect to reflect their fictional gynocentric world. Women curse overly aggressive men as “ovary busters.” Wives shout at their timid husbands “Shut up, Henry. I wear the skirts in this house!” Women of the church pray “in the name of the mother, and the daughter, and the holy witch.” And one of the top-rated shows on TV is a sitcom called I Love Ricky. Sample line from the show: “Waaahhhhh. Lucy, why can’t I be in the ‘Bay of Pigs’ number?”

Sometimes Lipkin and Clear teeter on the edge of bad taste. At one point a gravelly-voiced, cigar-chomping boss woman snaps out a Mamet-esque line: “What am I supposed to do? Sit here and menstruate money?” But I’d take a hundred lines like this over a single dumbhead one-liner by any of today’s top misogynistic stand-ups.

In bringing this play to Circle Theatre, director Karen Skinner stumbles a bit, softening the message by playing up the cuter aspects of the script–Lipkin’s sillier jokes, Clear’s bouncy, children’s-theater songs–and letting the most pungent satire slide. This is especially true of the scenes that lampoon our health-care system; judging from this production, you’d think the biggest complaint Lipkin and Clear have about free clinics is that they’re staffed by male nurses with outrageous Jamaican accents.

Yet there’s plenty of bite left in the show, thanks in large part to Skinner’s energetic cast. Jeff Dumas is utterly believable as Joey, the play’s hapless unwed father. When he faces frustration and disappointment, you feel his pain. When things go his way, you can’t help but cheer him on.

Joy Ovington and Alena Murguia seem to be having the time of their lives playing the various female-chauvinist pigs. It’s amazingly liberating to see women delivering such performances, being as wild as they want to be without fear of what others think.


Bugeater Theatre

at the Playwrights’ Center

I wish I could say the same about Pelvic Variations, but even the men in Jim Hanna’s four-person, two-hour, late-night comic revue seem repressed and uninspired. The women seem vaguely bored playing the same old wife/girlfriend/one-night-stand roles women have to play in all second-rate comedy sketches.

Advertised as an exploration of gender roles, this is old shtick in new packaging, without a single ground-breaking sketch. The closest it comes to Lipkin and Clear’s gender-bending wit is a single sketch in which the men (Brendan Sullivan and Paul Mullins) clean up after Thanksgiving dinner, while the women (Heidi Ammon and Sarah Taylor) watch football. Even this rather minor societal critique turns reactionary when the men rebel against their servitude and order–in boorish, who-wears-the-pants-in-this-family voices–the women to do the dishes while they watch the game.

The rest of the material in Pelvic Variations is either mildly funny (as in a sketch in which we discover that women only pretend to be scared by horror movies because they think their boyfriends want to comfort them, while the men are scared to death but repress their fears to seem strong and comforting) or just flat-out tedious (as when a man and woman argue about who has it tougher, men or women). Such dead-on-the-stage bits are very dangerous in shows that start after 10:30–they’re an invitation to snooze.

The only sketch worthy of the show’s advance publicity is one in which we overhear a man and a woman recounting the same disastrous blind date. That the two come to very different conclusions about how the evening went–he thinks he was magnificent, she hopes never to see him again–speaks volumes about the ways we human beings fail to communicate.

I’m not sure Hanna’s script would have seemed better with a livelier cast, but certainly the four-member cast never seem fully committed to it. In fact, they seem almost as uninspired by the material as I was. Inspired or not, they can’t help but go down with the script.