Three-act comedies and dramas are looked upon as fossils of a bygone age – by playwrights, producers, and theatergoers – unless you venture into the alternate universe of dinner theater, where multiple intermissions help facilitate food service and billing. Outside that endangered genre of theatre, Jack Hiefner’s Vanities was one of the last of its species, brought to an off-Broadway stage for a three-year run beginning in 1976, after two similarly designed plays, Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite and Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year, had succeeded on Broadway. Spanning a decade, beginning on the afternoon of JFK’s assassination late in 1963 and ending in the summer of 1974, Hiefner introduces us to three high school cheerleaders navigating the bustle of their senior year, full of themselves and their popularity. We check in again on Joanne, Kathy, and Mary in their sorority house just before their college graduation – and one last time six years later, when they reunite after going their separate ways. It’s not the usual sort of fare for Stephen Seay Productions, which trends more towards Reduced Shakespeare and Christopher Durang. But Seay is accustomed to directing at various Charlotte bars, and he makes it work nicely at the funky UpStage venue, which boasts a wine bar and a performance space that, under its new management, is occasionally reconfigured for a Bohemian version of dinner theater.
There are no dinner tables for this UpStage offering, but Seay does observe the double entendre of Hiefner’s title, so there are definitely some modifications to the space. A spread of three vanity tables shine out at us through the sheath of a semi-transparent black curtain behind the space where the action will play out. Before the action begins and between acts, we watch our co-stars dressing and putting on their faces, which we can espy through the vanity mirrors. For once, the distinction between upstage and backstage is eradicated. But Seay provides additional diversions so we don’t have to spend all the evening’s interstitial moments in voyeurism. SauroSimian Alchemy, a fine duo with singer Darlene Parker and singer-guitarist Phoenixsong Stellamaris, sing a couple of their original songs along with covers of one pop tune per act. Most important of these is Kirsty MacColl’s “What Do Pretty Girls Do?” repeated in different moods as the evening progresses.
While the years will hold their surprises, especially in the concluding act, the personalities of the three women who eventually emerge are etched pretty sharply after they part the curtains for the first time for their high school gymnasium powwow. Joanne is the conventional, moralistic co-ed whose future is already clearly mapped out: marriage to her boyfriend Ted, house and children out in the suburbs. She hasn’t picked a college major yet because job and career have no part in her plans. Kathy is the queen bee among the cheerleaders, the earnest organizer, agenda-setter, and presumptive homecoming queen. She is already in her chosen milieu, planning to be a Phys. Ed. teacher. Among these seniors, united by their popularity and contempt of classmates who are not popular, Mary is the loosest and most iconoclastic, planning to major in psychology. While Joanne and Kathy have steadies, the restless Mary is in transition. The shallow, anti-intellectual self-regard of the co-eds is underlined by their clueless reaction to the PA announcement that the President has been shot. Yet the obliquity with which Hiefner makes his point, instead of zestfully pouncing on it, may seem puzzling nowadays. Perhaps it might be helpful to inform younger folk that the essence of post-modernism in American poetry was still crystallized in William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” an homage to a painting by Brueghel that reduces the cosmic mythological event to a distant, unnoticed splash.
The trio are as closely bonded as ever when we next meet them at their sorority house, yet we soon discover that graduation is about to split them apart. Joanne has held onto her virginity and Ted, with their marriage imminent. Ever the planner and still on track to teach PE, Kathy is consumed by the necessity of finding new sorority pledges that keep up the prestige of the house. Mary is still the wildcard, aching for liberation from college, heading for Rome with her career plans on hold. It’s spring 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in our history, but the young women have managed to remain in their self-centered cocoons. Only Joanne’s life has proceeded in a predictable trajectory when Kathy manages to gather the old chums together for the 1974 reunion. Mary, the last to arrive, has the most sensational surprises to disclose, but Kathy, the hostess of our little garden party, also has a shocker.
Rachael Houdek doesn’t shrink from all the defects that make Joanne so easy to dislike. On the contrary, she is louder in her shallow dogmatism than the character or the room necessitates, making it that much easier to laugh at her before the denouement. As Mary, Leslie Ann Giles comes off that much more sharp and sophisticated by virtue of the contrasting cool she brings to the shameless iconoclast. The only deep flaw in the production is the lovely Avalon Rose as Kathy. If a second expression ever crossed her face during the course of the evening, I must have missed it. She seemed to have a sure grasp of her lines, but was more than a little lax in letting them loose in her chronic monotone. As frustrating as I often found Rose’s sluggish cue pickup, Giles and Houdek managed to sail over Rose’s pauses with perfect equipoise. Nor should adventurous theatergoers hesitate to peep in on Hiefner’s provocative mix of mockery and empathy as our heroines, in the pre-dawn of feminism, discover that popularity during their schooldays isn’t a passport to future happiness.
Vanities continues through Sunday, August 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.