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Griffin Theatre Company
RIFFIN’ WITH SEMPLE
Organic Lab Theater
There are a few grains of truth amid the fluff that fills Mrs. California. You have to sit longer than you should through this not very original play before you find them, but they’re definitely there.
Doris Baizley’s 1986 slice of 1955 life depicts the tangled doings of an imagined Mrs. California pageant, a squeaky-clean event that its organizers insist is not a beauty contest but a serious search for the best gosh-darn, wonder-working homemaker in the whole Golden State. As such, the two-day ordeal is heavy work for its four, perky, chirpy contestants. As instructed by the offstage voice of a contest judge, the ladies undergo tests that measure their skills in sewing, setting tables, recognizing current events, providing valuable homemaking hints, keeping their dressing tables “neat as a pin,” preparing meals in short order (including “Beef Stew Dwight D. Eisenhower”), ironing a man’s shirt in less than 30 seconds, and describing the proudest moment of their lives while modeling evening gowns and displaying favorite dessert specialties. What, no diaper-changing marathon?
If you saw Smile, the 1975 film spoof of beauty pageants, you can imagine the one-upwomanship that follows. This salute to brain-damaged domesticity is not as wholesome as it looks at first, particularly since we see it through the ever-more-open eyes of Dottie Baker, aka Mrs. Los Angeles. A peppy blend of Betty Crocker, Doris Day, and Suzie Creamcheese, Dot is not as happy as she looks. Although Dudley, her gas-company sponsor, desperately tries to coach her into giving the right answers, Dottie would rather declare as the proudest moment of her life the time during World War II when her quick action as a message decoder saved American ships from attack by Nazi subs. The war’s over, however, and now the approved answer is a gushy something about how she’s honest-to-God proudest of the members of her family and the chance they give her to bask vicariously in their success. Self-effacement as a domestic duty.
Hoping to wise up Dottie to this crock of a contest is her nutso neighbor, Babs. Clad in a sultry black ensemble with black tights and a leopard-skin choker, Babs advises Dottie to cheat every chance she gets–to stuff for greater cleavage, flatter the judges, steal, spy, and sabotage. At first Dottie complies, but then she rejects her friend’s Machiavellian schemes at the insistence of Dudley, who considers Babs a jealous failure. It’s do that, or let Bab’s disruptions cost her the title. But–you guessed it–by the end, a newly aroused Dottie realizes that a friend like Babs is worth a heck of a lot more than getting a chance to go to Daytona Beach and become Mrs. America.
A Carol Burnett sketch would have hit the ball home much sooner. But Baizley’s leisurely spoof has its unpretentious charm, like the klutzy tribute Miss San Bernardino pays to the Big Dipper–each star, lit by a flashlight she pokes through a hole, represents a special glory of the Girl Scouts. Richard Barletta’s Griffin Theatre staging shrewdly exploits the play’s plastic memory mongering, but Barletta badly needs to speed things up, especially the too-long blackouts that separate the backstage intrigue from the public events of the contest.
Glowing with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, Kimberly Muller makes a pretty, pert, and eventually real Dot as she becomes more like Wendy Goeldner’s sassy, schizoid Babs. (When Goeldner really skewers the contest near the end, it’s the show’s funniest subversion.) Gail Trotter, Miriam Kouzel, and Lisa Collins all have their moments as the smiling, sanitized ninnies who compete with Dottie (they are the former winners of the Miss Trust, Miss Giving, and Miss Demeanor contests). And Patrick M.J. Finerty is suitably slimy as Dottie’s homily-spouting sponsor.
It’s fitting that, in a show whose nostalgia is what keeps it from getting too nasty, the best thing is its look. Brian Traynor’s beauty-pageant set includes a miniature kitchen for each contestant, complete with a refrigerator and oven, an iron, cooking utensils, and an apparently authentic Singer sewing machine from the 50s. Andrew Vincent’s costumes are shrewd parodies of pert and perky 50s gowns.
This all happens in a brand-new theater. The Griffin folk have converted one floor, 7,000 square feet, of a Logan Square warehouse into a comfortably large lobby and a well-focused theater. Now all they need to do is provide a second rest room. Mrs. California would not want it any other way.
In another promising new space, the second-floor, 80-seat Organic Lab Theater, Riffin’ With Semple brings to abundant life two of Langston Hughes’s most enduring characters: Lang, a bartender and would-be poet and writer, and Jesse B. Semple, a smooth-talking, fast-living Harlem raconteur, philosopher, and self-appointed voice of the people.
Developed by its director, Bob Curry, and actor Zaid Farid from stories Hughes wrote in the 40s for the Chicago Defender, Riffin’ is a lively, sometimes bittersweet 75-minute conversational duet performed by opposites who attract.
Earnestly optimistic, Lang (Ed Wheeler) is a fellow who believes people should fix themselves before they blame life. Semple (Farid) is feisty, loud (whether arguing or bursting into bebop), and thirsty for liquids with proof in them. He serves Lang stories, and Lang rewards him with booze. Supposedly Semple is cleaning up the bar, but that seems just a pretext for him to spill his jive talk and cunning chat–and these are worth all the hooch in Harlem.
Semple has an opinion on everything, and he regales the delighted Lang with tales of how he’d filibuster the Senate to kill Jim Crow legislation (he’d give Strom Thurmond–or Jesse Helms–a taste of his own medicine), a poem he wrote about tourists who have more rights in the south than he does, his fantasy about being a black general who sends Mississippi bigots into battle, and his bitter suggestion that the government set aside “game preserves for Negroes.” That way blacks could get the same protection from lynchers as elephants do from poachers.
Closer to home, Semple gossips about a husband who returns from the war to find his wife’s lover in his bed, orders him into the closet, and covering himself with the sheets, gives his helpmate a big surprise when she returns. Semple himself has had alley-cat escapades and seat-of-the-pants escapes, but when Lang says he should settle down, an indignant Semple starts a hellfire sermon on women’s contradictions. (It seems likely he’s responsible for a lot of them.)
Lang also has rich anecdotes, like his tale of two horny women fighting over a bewildered veteran with a bum leg. In one of Hughes’s best set pieces, Lang describes an old black artist who’s belatedly honored at a banquet: suddenly famous when it’s too late to matter, he turns on these people, who never helped him when he needed it, and tells them to shove their phony praise and give some real help to a young artist.
For the same idealistic reason that motivated the old artist, Lang, a young artist, wants his friend Semple to find a dream that will pull him out of his anger at whites. When he’s alone, Lang quietly reads Hughes’s great poem about what happens to a “dream deferred.” It’s as if he were asking: what will Semple do? Will he dry up like a raisin in the sun–or explode?
Though Riffin’ sags in a few spots, Farid’s jazzy energy and Wheeler’s manic mimicry as a storyteller are a nice match, and each can listen every bit as intently as he can spin. These two could gab a lot longer, and few would mind.