Raven Theatre Company

Have you ever stopped to think, goes one particularly dark joke that made the rounds a while back, that if Mama Cass had shared her sandwich with Karen Carpenter they might both be alive today? The two women in Mary Gallagher’s terrific little play, Chocolate Cake, are not as extreme in their relative weights as the two deceased pop stars. JoEllen is a dumpy small-town hausfrau trying to be good and stick to her bowl of dry salad, but unable to resist the call of the chocolate cake she keeps moving around from the icebox to the cupboard to the stove. Delia is a raucous and wired big-city girl who compensates for her overeating with what she calls “my little trick”–the bulimic binge-purge syndrome.

JoEllen (JoAnn Montemurro) and Delia (Christine St. John) are trapped one night in a small-town motel in the middle of a blizzard; there’s no way to travel, and even if there were there’s nowhere to go. JoEllen knows this all too well, since she lives in the town: she’s spending her first night away from home in the five years since she got married, the occasion being a conference on careers for women being held at the motel. For fellow conference-goer Delia, the situation is a nightmare: ever since she escaped from New Jersey and moved to Manhattan she’s lived to avoid exactly this kind of hicksville. City mouse, country mouse–but the two do have one thing in common. They’re food addicts.

For JoEllen, eating has gone hand in hand with marriage–a marriage that, though full of caring and companionship, is virtually sexless. Whether her overweight is the cause or the result of the lack of lovemaking, she’s consumed by guilt–and consumes to escape that guilt, though of course she only ends up reinforcing it. When Delia comes barging into JoEllen’s motel room looking for company, JoEllen has been lolling around in her robe, hugging a stuffed dinosaur, singing along with the Chunky chocolate commercial on TV, pining for hubby, and reading the sort of trashy paperback novel that, as Delia says, “you need a pound of M & M’s to get through.”

Delia has zeroed in on JoEllen because she sensed that they were sisters under the (too much) skin–except that Delia is JoEllen’s total opposite: thin and energetic, a flashy dresser and fast liver. Too fast, it turns out. Ever since “I turned 13, got tits, and went on a diet,” Delia reveals, she’s been running from–what? Insecurity? Despair? Delia’s unnamed dark night of the soul has led her to develop a compulsive need for sound, motion, and food–and a dependency on various quick fixes to keep her weight down.

On the surface, Chocolate Cake–the second and more substantial half of the Raven Theatre Company’s pair of one-acts, “Ladies’ Night Out”–is a quirky little character study, the theatrical equivalent of the kind of short, slightly tart fiction you’d find in such magazines as Cosmopolitan and Playgirl–for which, in fact, playwright Gallagher has written. But Gallagher has a knack for telling details and crisp character counterpoint that lifts Chocolate Cake far above the limits of its genre; and, under the direction of Peter Forster, actresses Montemurro and St. John play their sharply observed roles with a spontaneous reality that gives the script genuine life on the stage. When the play ends, we know that JoEllen has “learned her lesson”–has had a vision of what she could become if she doesn’t get her act together, and has come to appreciate the good, if dull, life she does have. But the real pain that Gallagher’s script reveals–though always laced with quick-witted comic thrusts–prevents the audience from settling into comfortable aloofness from the characters.

The first half of “Ladies’ Night Out” is a brief playlet from the esteemed Lanford Wilson, Thymus Vulgaris. First performed in 1982 (two years after Chocolate Cake’s first appearance), Thymus is also a two-woman study in character contrasts, rendered in a slightly more absurdist vein. Ruby (Carolyn Bowyer), a feisty old lady living in a shabby trailer, is unexpectedly visited by her daughter Evelyn (Denise Tomasello), a flamboyantly tarty chorine trying to escape from her impending marriage to a rich “philanthropist.” The groom-to-be’s name is Sol–as in the rising sun, as in the promise of a new day. All Ruby has, meanwhile, is thyme–a pun on time; the herb is growing outside the trailer door, a constant reminder of the serious theme behind Wilson’s superficial goofiness.

Directed by Michael Menendian, Thymus Vulgaris is a trifle that calls for sharp performances to make it zing along; unfortunately, the two actresses here lack any punch or verve in their line readings. (Tomasello, it should be noted, is a very fine cabaret singer who is apparently making her acting debut.) Jim Price, playing an affable cop who’s been dispatched to bring Evelyn a message of love from her betrothed, outshines his fellow players–an imbalance that seems especially imbalanced in a production whose theme is, after all, women.

John Munson’s set design for the two plays–a cramped and cluttered trailer for Thymus, a tidy and spacious motel room for Chocolate Cake–is quite clever; the trailer wall is removed to open up the back portion of the stage, in which rests the motel room bed. Interestingly, the one constant element in the two sets is a kitchen unit–refrigerator, sink, cupboard, and stove–as if to note how often plays about women revolve around the kitchen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.