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 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.
written and performed by Lauren Weedman. Directed by Allison Narver. Set and lighting, Allen Hahn; sound, Mark Nichols; production stage manager, Eric Arnold. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 18 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.