Dancing at Lughnasa

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Editorial Review

Women's issues, two ways
By Nelson Pressley
Monday, April 30, 2012

The hapless women in "Dancing at Lughnasa" can't do much about their fate: They're stuck in straitlaced, poverty-riddled Ireland in the 1930s. Brian Friel's 1990 memory play, at Bethesda's Quotidian Theatre, allows the women a moment of musical ecstasy, but mainly it watches them sink.

The women in Marisa Wegrzyn's new "Killing Women," on the other hand, don't take bad news lying down. The jokey comedy, staged by the upstart Pinky Swear Productions at Spooky Action's church basement theater, opens with an idiot husband dragging a lady home, whereupon his wife puts a bullet in him.

"Lughnasa" is the better play, of course, but "Killing" is the juicier show.

With Friel's esteemed drama, Quotidian follows its long-established pattern of picking a refined script and delivering in an understated - undercooked, really - manner. Craig Alan Mummey's production on the ultra-simple stage at the Writer's Center offers little atmosphere; the set (Mummey's design) features a kitchen table and an outside bench, but it's just basic furniture, not art.

The acting is earnest but often fidgety. Laura Russell has quiet allure as one of the sweet but taciturn women stuck at home with an old man and a child (the boy's father swings by from time to time), and Stephanie Mumford, who also did the costumes, is often amusing as the resident jokester. But the play's signature dance, meant to be sublime, is haphazard, and the story, meant to break hearts, is wan.

You'd like to think the story in Wegrzyn's "Killing Women" is meant to do more than simply amuse, but the evidence is sketchy. A last-minute stab at seriousness hints that this black comedy isn't altogether throwaway, despite potty-mouthed patty-cake and knockoff lullabies bridging scenes about three women caught up in the assassination game.

The Pinky Swear actors have high spirits, and Karen Lange displays a particularly funny streak as a kind of sexy Suzy Homemaker who flirts with her marks and kills by injection. Allyson Harkey makes a nice impression as a natural born killer; she struts around in long black "Matrix" gear and seems to enjoy biting off tough patter and whipping weaponry from her thigh holster.

The Chicago-based Wegrzyn, 2009 winner of the $25,000 Wasserstein Prize, favors brusque banter and quirky resistance as Harkey's character butts up against a gangland glass ceiling. Jessica Aimone's cast embraces the silliness; even the play's men get their moments as a motley crew of mobsters and mouth breathers.

But if Wegrzyn is really satirizing women's roles and corporate inanities, her knife isn't in deep enough. Despite the confident dialogue and some zip in the acting, the show mostly feels like a campus prank.