As soon as actress Beverly Cosham appears on the H Street Playhouse stage wielding a clipboard and a plunger, you suspect that the production you're about to see will be a bit different. If you don't recognize her -- though loyal area theatergoers surely will -- you'll easily slip into the show's ruse as she nonchalantly introduces herself as "Bess Jackson Webster," pretends to recognize someone in the audience with the request "Call me!" and reminds everyone to turn off cell phones and avoid the backed-up women's room toilet.
It feels like a typical preshow announcement, but it's actually just a part of "A Monday Night With Bess and Tess," African Continuum Theatre Company's valentine to Cosham and another veteran of D.C. stages, Jewell Robinson. Created specifically for the actresses by local playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings, "Bess and Tess" has the two divas playing two actresses, one of whom is about to retire.
Jennings's script is a playful exercise to showcase what the women can do. The setup has Bess and frequent collaborator Tess Tilman Davis (Robinson) getting together onstage for one last time, though the motive of each is not to say goodbye but to reignite the other's interest in theater -- Tess fakes depression and then writes a few scenes for them to act out in hope of persuading Bess not to retire, while Bess, in order to get Tess out of her funk, lies about the possibility of a cable TV producer's showing up to tape the performance.
The four short one-acts that make up "Bess and Tess" allow Robinson and Cosham to show their range in a variety of theatrical genres. Though the Shakespearean "Bound Hearts" is presented quite seriously, the actresses perform an Oscar Wilde parody, "Tee, Pee and Thee," with the suggestion that what they're doing is somewhat ridiculous: "Where the hell did that come from?" Bess sarcastically remarks out of character when tinkly, "Masterpiece Theatre"-style music introduces the scene. "What does that have to do with Oscar Wilde? What do we have to do with Oscar Wilde?"
"Still Dark Waters," a civil rights-era drama, has the actresses face off in a bitter dialogue about black suffrage, while the contemporary "Listing and Rolling" is a more lighthearted sketch of a late-night talk between estranged sisters. The scenes are pleasant enough diversions, and Jennings's aping of each style is competent and often funny -- such as the moment in "Tee, Pee and Thee" when Bess's character remarks that she's not handsome and Tess's gentlewoman responds, "Then how very considerate of you to be veiled, my dear!"
The highlight of "Bess and Tess," however, is the between-scenes to help them with the production: "You'll excuse any awkward pauses," the obviously pampered Tess says to the audience, "while I move things I shouldn't have to." Cosham and Robinson have the chemistry of old friends as they trade barbs and settle into the souped-up black box stage -- made to look like a run-down regular stage -- as if this is all old hat. Which of course it is, a point that's made each time the seasoned actresses jump through Jennings's hoops with ease.
A Monday Night With Bess and Tess by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Set, Timothy J. Jones; lighting, Harold F. Burgess II; costumes, LeVonne Lindsay; sound, David Lamont Wilson. Approximately two hours. Through June 27 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.africancontinuumtheatre.com.