“Parallel Lives” by Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy marks the debut of Susan Auten’s new theatre company, Keepin’ On Productions, at Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. As a script it is a fascinating journey with two very creative and funny writers, brought to life by four talented and entertaining actresses. Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy developed the material in sketch shows they wrote in the mid 1980s and produced Off-Broadway, then on HBO. Now Auten, Jamie Harwood, Holli Saperstein, and Gina Gambony breathe new life into the script.
It is an evening of fun and an odd mish-mash of narratives—what I think of as “reflection moments.” In “Silent Torture,” Gambony and Saperstein recreate the arduous preparatory exercises women go through in order to leave the house. (bikini wax, anyone?). Set to increasingly more frantic music, it becomes a race and competition to the death, which Saperstein and Gambony fight with rising panic and determination. Like many pieces, it is a great way to look at a serious topic from a humorous and surprising perspective, which more than anything seems to be the objective of the evening: to come at gender, class and relationships sideways and with a laugh.
Take “Mrs. Kenny Rogers,” which follows “Silent Torture.” Saperstein and Gambony, now both in blonde wigs and reeling from the effects of their maniacal perpetrations, occupy opposite sides of the stage. Saperstein begins an ode to the type of woman immortalized in modern country-music ballads. On the other side of the stage, Gambony plies her trade as a lady of negotiable affection and unexpectedly encounters the real Mrs. Kenny Rogers.
Let’s just say the observations made by both women are not identical in perception. Saperstein’s rendition is filled with longing and desire that reaches out to each member of the audience. Gambony’s down-to-earth portrayal of her character’s profession manages not to either overly glamorize it, à la “Pretty Woman,” or diminish her intelligence. It takes a lot of smarts to survive at what she does. Observation and analysis are entry-level skills. It is surprising, but effective without coming across as overly crass or heavy handed.
“Period Piece” mocks commercials for feminine products and fantasizes about how men would respond if they were afflicted with the same problems as women. It begins with Saperstien in a full babushka and cradling what appears to be an infant, while describing the hardships of life running the farm in her village by herself. All the while she’s a single mother and rearing enough children to start a minor-league sports team. Slowly, skillfully and humorously, Saperstein is revealed as the spokesperson for a feminine product. Harwood and Gambony re-enact the top-secret spy mission of asking a neighbor for a tampon; they both sell the absurdity.
But the real kicker in the piece comes with Saperstein and Auten donning ball caps and greeting each other as two men who are close enough friends to drink beer and watch football together. One is having his period, the other invited him over for a kegger on the date he is set to get his next one. They compete over who uses the biggest tampon. While seemingly bombastic, it is the exact behavior they are mocking that is on display constantly throughout any ol’ average day.
More narrative-driven pieces round out the show’s vignettes. “Las Hermanas” chronicles the adventures of two senior citizens (Saperstein and Gambony), who get more than they bargained for when they decide to take some extra courses at the local college. I think Saperstien’s character might be my fate: befuddled, apologizing, baffled but well-intentioned, and—as long as she has her BFF along for the ride—together they can take on the world. As is this case, they’re attempting experimental performance art. That Auten and Harwood make it through performing without bursting into uncontrollable giggles is, in and of itself, one hell of an accomplishment. It is a blend of bad adolescent poetry, activism and Suessian farce that really defies description.
Maybe their saving grace is they do get a lot of giggles out of the piece right before in “Three Sisters,” which deals with a family holding a wake for their grandmother who died at Disney World on Space Mountain. The piece manages to tackle grief with great hilarity—not in a slapstick way, like “Dearly Beloved,” but rather poking fun at the folly of life and the confusion of navigating the treacherous world of our loved ones.
And that is what makes the writing so fascinating: Gaffney and Najimy aren’t necessarily trying to create extenuating and exaggerated humor so much as celebrate it all, which pervades human life. Take Gambony and Harwood as Annette and Gina, for example—two 15-year-old girls trying to reconcile their existence against “West Side Story.” The conversation is completely inane, but really funny because of how realistic the scenario actually is and how well the two actresses embody the world of youth.
The whole evening is filled with laughter, even Auten’s terribly distressing monologue, “Clinic Shooting,” has strikingly funny moments. For instance, she muses whether another protester gets her signs professionally made. But the laughter is used to really look at deeply difficult topics that, unfortunately, are still poignant today.
Many congrats go out to Auten and Keepin’ On Productions on a great debut. The script is amusing, the multitude of characters are varied and nuanced. It’s a fun and thought-provoking entertainment.