Charlie looks like "an outtake from 'Annie Hall,' " consciously disheveled, garbed in baggy clothes that draw attention while hiding her body. She could be a Wendy Wasserstein heroine or a secondary character on any number of sitcoms: hopelessly insecure, funny in a bitingly self-depreciating way and constantly looking for love. To say we've met her before is not to say we can't spend another evening with her -- in this case a frequently funny and moving one embodied in "Automatic Pilot," a new play at Horizons Theatre.
The wisecracking dame who got laughs but no dates was perfected by Rosalind Russell, to name one virtuoso, although in those days the story usually ended with a manly swain shutting her up with a kiss. Her contemporary counterpart is a woman far more introspective and miserable than these predecessors; never able to see herself as anything but an unlovable wallflower without a date for the prom. In "Automatic Pilot," by Canadian Erika Ritter, Stephanie Siegel Cavanaugh plays a typically hip, 30-year-old urban woman whose eight-year marriage ended when her husband (Vincent James Brown) fell in love with another man.
She earns her living writing a television soap opera and spends her evenings trying to be a stand-up comic. She also has a habit of drinking herself into oblivion and waking up in the bed of some man whose name she can't remember. One of these dalliances catches fire, briefly, and when the man (Martin Goldsmith) turns out to be a typical modern cad who flees at the merest prospect of domesticity, she is heartbroken. His younger brother (Christopher Hurt), seven years her junior, leaps into the breach and falls genuinely in love with her, a love she is unable to endure for very long.
While she is living happily, if briefly, in connubiality with the young man, her comedy routine falls by the wayside. As the cad explains it, "She's got nothing to complain about now." The premise that underlies this development is disturbing: Is Ritter trying to say women can't work if they're in love? That artistic or professional drives dry up in the presence or pursuit of a man? The fact that Charlie returns to performing when her romance dissolves would seem to affirm that view, but the idea remains hanging out there unresolved.
There is often something innately pathetic about someone trying to be a stand-up comic; the desperate need for laughs -- acceptance -- often overtakes the humor. The modern woman as clown is almost too simple a metaphor; though it allows for a lot of witty one-liners, it is all too predictable that the woman laughing on the outside should be crying on the inside.
Certainly finding out that your husband is a homosexual would be enough to throw anyone into a tailspin, but this incident does not seem to be the root cause of Charlie's lack of self-worth. Just what is, we never learn, though Ritter is obviously trying to say something about the modern woman -- too often a casualty of the sexual revolution, enslaved by old-fashioned expectations (her own as well as others') even while pursuing professional, intellectual and physical freedom.
Cavanaugh captures the vulnerability of this creature and does a good job with the comedy too. Her hair teased to a rat's nest, oversized glasses falling off her nose, she's a fetching and affecting heroine. Hurt provides the earnest idealism of the young man in love, although never have I heard such wisdom from the mouth of a 23-year-old. Goldsmith and Brown play the shallow counterpoints; neither's performance is as sure-handed as those of the other two.
Charlie is, as her disappointed lover remarks, a professional victim. There are a lot of women just like her whose deep-seated conflicts about any kind of success -- or self-perceived failure -- are a disturbing commentary on our times. Ritter has not written the play that explores these problems in the depth they may deserve, but she's made a worthwhile try.
Automatic Pilot, by Erika Ritter, directed by Susan Marya Baronoff, set by Jon Hensley, lighting by Marsha Lane Boerke, costumes by William Pucilowsky. With Stephanie Siegel Cavanaugh, Christopher Hurt, Martin Goldsmith, Vincent James Brown. At the Horizons Theatre, Grace Episcopal Church.