Alma’s Pursuit

at Live Bait Theater, through September 19

Malls with more square miles of parking than square footage of stores. The security of a lifetime career at Sears. Bathtubs without rings. Those weird, sparkly flowers painted on Fruit of the Loom sweatshirts and worn as high fashion by girlish women with overprocessed hair. These are the four horsemen of the suburban apocalypse, the continual rapture of the ordinary that Caren Skibell and Jennifer Biddle have brought to Live Bait in their cabaret show, Alma’s Pantsuit. But despite a few inspired comic characterizations energized by the pair’s confident partnership, the eight plain people we meet are almost too realistic to be funny and too jovially dull to carry much ironic punch.

Skibell, whose one-woman show at Cafe Voltaire was the prototype for this collaboration, is particularly good at creating characters whose niceness borders on the pathological–though she doesn’t push it far enough. Her Pat Harper leads the audience in an orientation for our new jobs in the Sears customer service department, pausing repeatedly during her long, banal descriptions so that we fully understand her, combining the studied concern of a therapist with the condescending attention of a firstgrade teacher. It’s funny at first but increasingly irritating in its consistency, especially since Pat reappears throughout the evening as a slow, patient phone voice calming irate, idiotic customers. I began to feel trapped, reliving my days as a telephone operator–Skibell must have done time as a customer-service rep herself in order to capture the self-deprecating politeness required to appease the public. By the end of the night I was tired of Pat and her fellow suburbanites’ stolid enthusiasm, and felt grateful that my time as a Sears employee would be limited to an evening of theater.

These nice, detail-obsessed, two-dimensional characters certainly belong at Sears, as consumers and as workers. But why are they onstage? The sketches seem carefully shaped by the performers and their director, Edward Thomas-Herrera. I wanted to know more about these people, so ordinary, presented here with obvious pleasure by two committed performers. But the characters convey little dramatic or comic tension, and no single tone unifies the cabaret format. Skits like “Trim Jeans,” a send-up of inflatable weight-control exercise pants, and “In the Bathroom With Alfie Arpel,” one of several parodies of amateurish but enthusiastic community cable productions, have a goofy satirical humor. Meanwhile the running Sears vignettes grow more and more deadpan, breaking the rhythm of cartoonish parody. Finally, with Biddle and Skibell in drag as two brothers from Sears personnel, we’re sent off to a fictional potato salad feast, and the absurdity promised by the premise of our orientation is never fulfilled. Instead we get a few wisecracks about the dangers of filing the wrong-colored forms for a disability claim. The characters in general are content, can buy what they need, aren’t bored by their daily routines, in fact have little to say about them, except perhaps “Look at me” or, at their most coercive, a gentle “Be like me.” It’s as if Skibell and Biddle loved their characters enough to resist mocking them but not enough to let them have the full personalities that would have energized their stories.

The closest we get to a character’s inner life is through Alma Johnson, the title character, another of Skibell’s unnaturally cheerful women. She tells a rambling, poignant story about the day she lost faith in her television weatherman. Relying on the five-day forecast, she plans a big day in the sun on her back porch, shopping for days for food, plants, the perfect chair, and other porch accessories. When it rains on the big day, Alma is so disappointed that she stops watching the news altogether–she feels that her freedom to plan her life has been taken away. The monologue ends with her joy at a new discovery: the weather station on the radio, which allows her to know the weather at all times, exactly at the moment it happens. But is this a touching insight into the quietly desperate suburban need for control? A comment on the sad lack of ambition hidden in the American dream? A gentle gibe at the power of the media? As my housemate used to say when she knew she’d never find an answer to her question, “whatever.”