In crackling ‘Bachelorette,’ the acid wit is unbridled
By Celia Wren
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Like a pair of pearl-studded garters worn beneath a thrift-store nuptial gown, there’s a morality play and a pop-psychology manifesto tucked beneath the surface of the acid comedy “Bachelorette.” Now on view in a terrifically acted and flawlessly paced Studio Theatre production, directed by David Muse, Leslye Headland’s diverting play chronicles a night of frenzied misbehavior by Gena, Katie and Regan, single 20-somethings whose wild oats come in a genetically engineered supercrop variety.
Given access to the swanky bridal suite of their pal Becky on the night before her marriage to a wealthy hunk, the three incorrigibles loot the champagne, vomit in the bathroom, snort coke on a gift-wrapped present, and -- while savagely mocking Becky behind her back -- rip her wedding dress. At first it seems that jealousy drives these antics. And yet, as the sex-, drugs- and spite-fueled plot of “Bachelorette” turbojets forward, it becomes obvious that Gena, Katie and Regan’s real problems are broader than envy of Becky: The trio are in train-wreck mode because society has trained them in self-indulgence and self-disgust.
Fear not. Headland may not aim for subtlety -- she has identified this play, a 2010 off-Broadway hit, as the gluttony-themed entry in her cycle of works inspired by the proverbial Seven Deadly Sins -- and her observation that some women have grave self-esteem and body-image issues isn’t exactly new. Still, there’s nothing preachy or cliche in her portrait of decadence, desperation and the switchblade-edged underside of female bonding in “Bachelorette.” That’s obvious from the opening moments of Muse’s production, when Gena and Katie (Laura C. Harris and Jessica Love) barge into the ritzy Manhattan hotel suite, emitting screams of laughter, and proceed to jump on the sofa, litter the floor with corks and ape Jimi Hendrix, using a champagne bottle in lieu of a guitar. (Set designer Deb Booth’s swanky minimalist hotel room, with its severe lines and muted colors, hits the perfect hipper-than-thou note.)
Once the cranky Regan (Dylan Moore) flounces into this nascent bacchanalia, it’s open season for bad-mouthing the absent Becky, whose particular crime, in her friends’ eyes, is that she is plus-size. The sneering at Becky’s girth -- like much of the conversation in “Bachelorette” -- often comes couched in language that is not quotable here. Fortunately, without playing down the profane, self-justifying, conversational fumbles of her none-too-bright characters, Headland manages to craft dialogue that is propulsive, funny and slyly textured, containing a fair share of zinger ripostes. “You look like a ‘Carrie’-themed parade float,” Gena deadpans when Katie tries on the too-large $15,000 wedding dress.
The play includes some poignant moments, particularly after Regan picks up two guys named Jeff and Joe (Eric Bryant and JD Taylor). When Katie -- whose psyche is about as sturdy as the post-iceberg Titanic -- makes a pass at Joe, a kindly stoner, the vulnerabilities of both flare into the open. “Don’t you get it, you stupid, f---ing phony?” she wails when he declines to make out with her, on the grounds that she’s overwrought and blotto. “This is what Marilyn Monroe looks like!”
Love taps expertly into Katie’s despair and frailty, and Taylor exudes a spot-on nerdy hesitancy as the slow-talking Joe. Bryant aces the smarmy egoism of Joe’s sidekick Jeff -- who, in one of the show’s quirkiest moments, proves he can discourse knowledgeably on President Harry Truman’s role at the 1945 Potsdam conference.
Moore’s Regan is suitably abrasive, solipsistic and insecure, but somehow this pivotal character comes across as less interesting than basket-case Katie. She’s even less interesting than Harris’s Gena, who can veer in a moment from agitated to teary to furious as she paces around in leggings, a slinky tunic and high-heeled gladiator sandals. (Jennifer Moeller devised the characterappropriate costumes.)
As written by Headland, “Bachelorette” doesn’t build as much as it might: The characters’ self-destructive energies are too obvious from the start. But you’re inclined to forget this flaw when the comedy reaches its barbed ending: a glimpse of human weakness and cruelty that’s as skillfully positioned as a cyanide-laced sugar rose on the top of a wedding cake.
Black comedy is a bright success for playwright
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, May 18, 2012
Playwright Leslye Headland knew only one person from whom she could draw inspiration for the back-stabbing, coke-snorting, wedding-dress-mangling besties in her black comedy “Bachelorette” -- herself.
They’re all her, she says, every last wicked bit of them.
“The basis for them were not any women in my life,” Headland says by phone from New York on the eve of the play’s run here at Studio Theatre. Instead, it was her own 20s, and her own complexities, that informed the play’s four seriously complicated female characters.
“Bachelorette” follows the women as they come together a decade after high school to celebrate the impending nuptials of one of their ilk. But there are no tiaras or phallic cake at this champagne-soaked pity party. The bride, Becky, is nowhere to be found, and these sisters in snark instead set up camp in her swanky hotel room to inhale copious amounts of cocaine, bemoan their own post-high-school fate -- and bash Becky.
It’s “The Hangover” without the male bonding; “Bridesmaids” if the entire party was overdue for an intervention.
The play, first produced in 2008, isn’t just another wedding comedy. It offered an unflinching look at the messy lives of 20-something women ahead of TV shows such as HBO’s critical hit “Girls” and movies such as the Charlize Theron vehicle “Young Adult.” All of the characters are struggling with underemployment, personal failures and, perhaps most crippling for ambitious young women, lost momentum.
“I certainly wasn’t thinking I’d be exposing any dark side of femininity,” Headland says. But as the struggling young adult becomes evermore part of the zeitgeist, she says, “it’s nice to know that I’m not alone in those feelings as a woman.”
“As I was writing [the play], I was like, ‘Am I the only one who feels this way? Am I the only woman who beats herself up more for overeating than she does about sleeping with someone else’s boyfriend?’ ”
It is that sharp-elbowed humor that drives much of the play. One monologue in particular, on the subject of oral sex, could drop the jaws of the most jaded theatergoer.
“When I was by myself in my room writing it, I was so terrified,” Headland recalls. “The first time we ever performed it, we got this huge response, this huge laugh. It’s touching on something truthful that hasn’t been discussed in that way.”
Headland, who is in her early 30s, grew up in Prince George’s County, and it was at University Park Elementary School that her interest in theater blossomed. (Her local stage credits include a turn in the “Christmas Revels” show at Lisner Auditorium.) The seeds for “Bachelorette” were planted when Headland attended her younger sisters’ weddings and was asked repeatedly whether it was “hard” for her to still be unmarried. Is a wedding, she says she wondered, still the ultimate sign a woman has it all? “If you don’t have that,” she says, “are you still unfulfilled?”
The playwright had already embarked upon a series of plays based on the seven deadly sins, and “Bachelorette” would become her unlikely exploration of gluttony -- unlikely because it isn’t Rubenesque Becky who is the picture of excess. It’s her friends -- attractive, stylish and perfect on paper though they may be.
The women, says Studio Artistic Director David Muse, “are delightful and witty, and the ways that they figure out how to sabotage one another involve a certain degree of emotional understanding.” They’re also, he says, self-loathing and disconnected.
Muse says he decided to direct the production “because, one, it is the kind of play you can just have a wild good time with in the spring.” But, he adds, “I also understood that the play was about more than that. I got it. Maybe I’ve seen it enough, or watched people go through where these women are in their lives. It made sense to me.”
For Headland, it’s the play’s stomach-turning queen bee, Regan, who resonates most. “I really understand that feeling of ‘I did everything right. I checked off all the right boxes. Why isn’t anyone respecting me?’ ” Headland says. “She thinks there’s this plan to living your life . . . that if you check off those boxes, then you’re going to get something at the end.”
Not that Headland’s own course is much like her character’s: Since “Bachelorette” opened off-Broadway in 2010, it has all but transformed her life. Five years after leaving her job as a stressed-out assistant at Miramax, later renamed the Weinstein Co., in New York, Headland walked the red carpet at Sundance this winter as the writer and director of the Will Ferrell-produced film version of “Bachelorette.” (The movie, which stars Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher, will see wide release in September.)
So is this play the last we’ll see of her theater work?
“The film was such a gift. It was something I never expected to happen,” Headland says. “My first love is theater. I don’t think I’ll not be doing that.”