A one-woman satire of Los Angeles culture
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011
If Lauren Weedman is an acquired taste, I've acquired it. She's a gust from the satiric jet stream, blown east from Los Angeles for an 18-day stand at Studio Theatre. Imagine the agitated test-tube offspring of Diane Keaton and Robin Williams, emerging from four hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 405, and you'll have some idea of the frazzled, protean state of her comically tortured mind.
She entertainingly binds her passions for irony and impersonation in "Bust," her 90-minute, one-woman show, during which she digests the voices and emotional bearings of a passel of women and men, and spits them out as perfect-pitch portraits of self-absorption, self-delusion, self-affirmation and, occasionally, plain old selfishness.
It's an identifiably cosmopolitan and provincial L.A. that she conjures, from her embodiment of a callous casting director for a soft drink commercial, to a hyper-loquacious jail inmate with a crystal meth itch.
A Washington audience may not commune as knowingly as one from California with the spa, beach and exercise culture that Weedman evokes: There's a scene in a sauna with a witty pantomime involving breast implants, for instance, that takes you an extra second to process. And it does require some translation skills for an Atlantic brain to fully grasp how dominant a force body consciousness is on the opposite edge of the continent.
But the neuroses on display here are universal, and Weedman proves to be a witty ambassador of Pacific values, even as she trains a microscope on her own.
"Bust" is an account by the actress and playwright of her efforts to redirect outwardly her solipsistic life, by becoming a volunteer counselor in the Los Angeles County Jail system. "I just wanted to do something that wasn't about me," Weedman explains, playing herself in an orientation meeting for the volunteer program, Beyond Bars. "If I did one thing in my day that wasn't about my career - or weight loss - that would be okay."
Weedman occupies the bodies of her fellow recruits; the orientation leader; the guard who leads their tour of the jail; the prisoners to whom she's assigned; and other assorted chaplains, corrections officers and friends. The proceedings are muscularly choreographed by director Allison Narver, with the excellent assist of Allen Hahn's well-defined lighting design. They help to underline the strengths of Weedman, one of those disciplined mimics who can summon a distinct intonation and posture for each character: She's an Anna Deavere Smith perched on the corner of Sunset and Vine.
Unlike Smith, though, the most satisfyingly fleshed-out character is the author herself. We learn, for example, just enough about the desperate conditions of each of her prisoners to understand her own limited usefulness as their liaison to the outside.
The Lauren Weedman she portrays in "Bust" has a compulsion for narrating her own wiseacre stream-of-consciousness in public, even on such inappropriate occasions as the introductory session for the jail volunteers. It's the self-deprecating, Woody Allen school of comedy: Her jokes typically don't seem to make the other people in her stories laugh. And there's always the tension in her storytelling of what happens when you're not being clearly understood.
This plays out particularly strongly in the other major strand of "Bust," which concerns a confessional article she writes for Glamour magazine, recounting a time in her adolescence when, she says, she made a spurious claim to have been raped. It was a cry for attention at a low point - she tells us no charges were brought against anyone as a result - and she adds that the offer to write came only after a third party confided the anecdote to the magazine editor from New York.
The journalistic result was a personal disaster for Weedman, who felt her admission had been distorted in the editing of the article: Her impression of the editor, an uber-glib Manhattanite with the smarmy habit of addressing her as "girlfriend," is one of the juiciest the actress executes.
This story takes on added meaning during a confrontation with the inmate she counsels who is facing the most serious charges, and who asserts that her public defender has already assumed the worst about her. Without turning into an editorial itself, "Bust" allows us to see how Beyond Bars becomes an antidote to the poison of the entire Glamour episode.
Weedman is a natural observational artist - perhaps the single most important attribute for successful solo performance. To fill a stage entirely with one's own thoughts and gestures seems an act both foolhardy and brave. My hat is off to the brave fools like Weedman, who not only try, but can also pull it off.
By Fiona Zublin
Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011
Lauren Weedman wants to talk to you about rape and prison, and she wants you to laugh about it.
Weedman, who has written six autobiographical plays, opens Thursday at the Studio Theatre in her one-woman comedy "Bust." It recounts her experiences volunteering at a women's prison while dealing with the fallout of a confessional article she wrote for Glamour magazine in 2005, "I Lied About Being Raped."
"My life is my material," she says, explaining that she knew she wanted to write a show about the lives of female prisoners. "At first I thought I'd go to the jail and teach a writing workshop," she says, her voice taking on a melodramatic tone that says she knows how hokey that would have been, "and then it could be the story of how I inspire them and they think I'm hilarious."
But Weedman, a 42-year-old comedian who has been featured on the HBO series "Hung" and as a correspondent on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," decided the logistics were too daunting and it was easier to work through the prison's volunteer program, simply talking to incarcerated women. It was then that Glamour published her article, in which she recounted that when she was a DePaul University freshman, she lied about being raped in a misguided attempt to get sympathy and attention. "This was just my version of cutting myself or a suicide attempt or something," she says now.
She found herself the object of vitriol from anonymous authors on Internet message boards. The two stories of false rape and prison volunteer intertwine as "Bust" contemplates questions of guilt and societal shaming of women.
"I was helping all these women who didn't have any sense of entitlement. They would be left in that jail for weeks on end when they weren't supposed to be there but didn't have anything in them that thought they should fight because they're so used to the idea that they're bad people," says Weedman. "Then the Glamour magazine thing happened, and I got all this message-board hate and e-mails about what a bad person I was. And a part of me thought, 'This is just what I deserve. I made this happen.' "
While some one-person shows (such as those of monologist Mike Daisey, whose current work is "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs") focus on dispensing wisdom, Weedman's work doesn't gloss over her flaws and foibles. I don't know what I'm doing, she says, but none of us do.
"I'm going to show you the bumbling, messy person I was," she says, "And you see me making a change in someone's life. But I'm still kind of an [expletive]." Weedman eschews the false wrap-up, the hero moment. She treats the audience as if they're her friends - and when you tell your friends about a time you did something less than admirable, they don't tell you you're a horrible person. They tell you they've been there. "Some people think the show is just about bad women, or bad people," Weedman says, "Instead of thinking: 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
Part of the danger of a one-person show is that if the audience starts to sour on the narrator, there's no other character who can sway their opinion. "If you don't like me, you're screwed," Weedman jokes. "You've got a long night ahead of you. It'd be like a really bad date."
But the problem of an audience just not getting the tone of a performance upfront is real. "As soon as the subject matter is introduced, it just shuts some people down," she says, "They're like, 'This is a serious matter.' It's harder to laugh because they know it's not funny. It's like when I did a show about adoption and some people said, 'Well, that must have been an interesting journey.' Like you told them something tragic. They don't want to laugh because they think it's something really intense.
"But when women who work in jails come to the show, they see the humor a lot more, because it's their life."