★★★☆☆ Sandra Tsing Loh’s play about the stage-screen-tv performers reuniting, Thomas Caruso directs
Whoa, what have we here right on a local stage? Why, it’s — in alphabetical order — Caroline Aaron, Brooke Adams, Marilu Henner, and Melanie Mayron, all beloved for big screen, little screen, and stage appearances over several decades. (You do the math on their ages, if you’re so inclined.)
The four have been rounded up to participate in Madwomen of the West — a play by Sandra Tsing Loh, already a Los Angeles long-run. In it they don’t play themselves, but characters specifically based on themselves and their enduring four-way friendship. Caroline is Marilyn, Brooke is Jules, Marilu is Zoey, Melanie is Claudia.
To what extent are they so much like themselves? More than once Henner, known for having an unusually good memory, is called on to demonstrate Zoey’s unusually good memory. For another instance, Aaron and Henner have talked on the phone just about daily for 40 years, which Marilyn and Zoey all but acknowledge here. For yet another instance, Claudia chats about the truths and specifics of being “vaguely Jewish, vaguely lesbian,” which Mayron is, perhaps minus the “vague.”
British character actor Robert Morley was asked one late night by Jack Paar about his definition of good theater. He said, “Four people come out on stage, sit on a sofa and converse.” This is exactly what Aaron, Adams, Henner, and Mayron do, or close to.
They sit on three plush couches before a backdrop of palm trees (put there by set designer Christian Fleming) and banter non-stop. (They look smart in Sharon Feldstein’s casual outfits, although Mayron wears thick boots.”) Also, they don’t steadfastly remain seated throughout, as Bette Midler did when portraying Sue Mengers on Broadway some years back in John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last monologue that kinda reads as a precursor to this enterprise.
The four madwomen, directed to a fare-thee-well by Thomas Caruso, are up and about possibly as much as a couple hundred times, standing and sitting and moving and sitting again and standing and sitting and rearranging. All the while they confront each other, justify each other, encourage each other, contradict each other, enjoy each other, and reminisce for about 100 nostalgia-filled minutes. Incidentally, Caroline and Jules, have gathered to celebrate Claudia’s birthday. Zoey, who long estranged herself from the others for any number of lucrative projects, is a surprise guest.
What do they talk about? A better question is, what don’t they talk about? When Mayron as Claudia recalls performing a certain handy service for an aroused male, it’s clear nothing is out of bounds. Intermittently, they render bits of Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back.” The implication is that from time to time they (as do many women) like thinking of themselves as bitches.
Which specific topics are discussed as four-letter words slice the air? Marilyn, pre-diabetic, mentions not sticking closely to her prescribed “sugar cleanse.” They bring up “the trans thing.” Zoey goes on rather grandly about the “granularity of life.” Breast surgery is recounted. Of Donald J. Trump taking office in 2017, Marilyn blurts, “How ‘bout those f*****g pussy hats?” and rails on. A few husbands, Gloria Steinem, a Michael Pollan bouillabaisse, a Peloton instructor, puberty and menstruation are mooted — and more, until sober confessions of their feelings about each other take late precedence.
(Incidentally, occasional audience participation occurs. Aaron, as designated emcee, puts the okay on that at the informal get-go. Eventually, patrons are even encouraged to sing the title ditty from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Many are happy to do so. Playwright Loh, you see, knows the movie-and-tv-lovers-of-a-certain-age to whom she’s appealing.)
Much of what gets discussed in a spectrum of moods is funny as well as pertinent. During this “girl-talk” affair, however, more than seems helpful comes across as forced. Indeed, there are times when the correct entertaining approach for arranging a theatrical Aaron-Adams-Henner-Mayron reunion might have been to let them gab about their actual experiences rather than spouting those lived by the fictional Marilyn, Jules, Zoey, and Claudia — something along the lines of The View.
Wait a sec. Perhaps playwright Loh has modeled her stand-in characters so closely on the originals that they are already speaking as and for themselves — and as themselves are also representing women everywhere when talking candidly with no men present.
One certainty: Playing either themselves or versions of themselves, they’re extremely convincing at it. On that score, audiences won’t come anywhere near being disappointed. After all, the casting is truly the point here, isn’t it?
Madwomen of the West opened December 4, 2023, at the Actors Temple Theatre and runs through December 31. Tickets and information: telecharge.com
David Finkle is a freelance journalist specializing in the arts and politics. He has reviewed theater for several decades, for publications including The Village Voice and Theatermania.com, where for 12 years he was chief drama critic. He is also currently chief drama critic at The Clyde Fitch Report. For an archive of older reviews, go here. Email: [email protected].