Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Why We Have a Body": ☼ ☼

Premieres of shows are always fun. You stand in the lobby, drink wine or champagne out of plastic cups and hobnob with other reviewers, an actor or two, a playwright whose last show you loved. The house is comped with theater sponsors and friends of the actors. The theater world is small. The mood is upbeat. It's nice to fit in.

Then the show starts and sometimes that overly-familiar audience can be a hindrance. Last night's premiere of Claire Chafee's "Why We Have a Body" at the Magic was one of those nights. The audience laughed at every line, funny or not. The words coming from the actors were wry and often comical, but mostly the story is an introspective one. It was as if a portion of the audience thought they were at the Gong Show and someone told them their voices would be heard on national TV.

Perhaps as a partial result, or perhaps just because of the eighteen years that have passed since 1993 when "Body" first premiered and was probably considered controversial -- the show today feels a bit fragmented, even shopworn. We have Lili, a declared lesbian, who is miserable; Renee (Rebecca Dines), separated from her husband, who meets Lili on an airplane and decides to try her out; Mary (Maggie Mason), the sister of Lili and a sexual question mark (she dresses in oversized coats and holds up 7-11 stores); and Eleanor (Lorrie Holt), the mother of Lili and Mary, who is off in the forest seeking some kind of inspiration, as long as it doesn't include returning home to Lili and Mary.

Mom is the only one who seems content. Her daughter Lili never smiles. Her daughter Mary never stops smiling. Renee goes both ways. Sometimes she's happy, sometimes she's sad. And sometimes she insists on showing Lili her baby pictures.

The main problem with "Why We Have a Body" is there is no plot. Lili and Mary are waiting for their mom at the opening and still waiting at the end. Mom is seeking but not finding. Only Renee moves at all. She leaves her husband in Mexico and we could all see that coming from back here in San Francisco.

As a result it is difficult to decipher what the show's point is. What's up with -- anybody? Why is Mary so quirky? Why is Lili so dour? Why is Mom so flighty? Why don't we get any backstory?

"Ha ha ha ha," goes the audience, slapping its knee.

Lorrie Holt and Maggie Mason make us smile. They hold our attention while they are on stage. Lauren English seems ready to burst out of her business suit until Rebecca Dines finally drags her back to her cave. But even this is so --- measured. We have seen all these wonderful actors many times in other roles, so we know it must be direction or story that are holding them back. We want them to explode and -- well, entertain us. Maggie Mason does it a few times. We could use more.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Why We Have a Body" only Two Stars. It's a shame that this stellar cast has not been given a vehicle that would give them more of a chance to take the wraps off. Like Mary says at the end: "I like a bonfire. I like a good bonfire." So would we.

"Why We Have a Body"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through October 2

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