"I'm not dreaming, I'm living in an exaggerated reality."
So says Guy (David Clayton Rogers), the man at the heart of Sheila Callaghan's "Women Laughing Alone with Salad," and it's an apt description of the play itself with its heightened sense of reality that features women catfighting in mounds of lettuce as its first act climax.
Now making its West Coast Premiere at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, the play goes down much like its titular dish — it gives the air of being light and refreshing, but all that roughage is difficult to digest. This is not a criticism, but merely a note that the play defies any pat explanation of its themes — instead, it challenges its audience to make their own conclusions to find meaning in its feminist fantasia.
The play tells the story of Guy, a young man searching for his identity and beset by the women in his life–his mother Sandy (Lisa Banes), his girlfriend Tori (Nora Kirkpatrick), and the target of his wandering eye Meredith (Dinora Z. Walcott). Guy struggles to understand as these women grapple with body-shaming, beauty standards, and the marketing of the mass media in their quest to express their desires, needs, ferocity, and power in a society that ignores, silences, rejects, and demeans them.
Salad is situated as the metaphorical subject of Callaghan's ire — a stand-in for the ridiculous expectations women have foisted upon them in a society obsessed with beauty and thinness. Salad is not necessarily a satisfying meal — it leaves you hungry for more, and in Callaghan's play, this is an allegorical representation of the lives women lead. She mocks salad as a dish that women pretend to enjoy to maintain a body type or air of youth and beauty, while also hinting at how ultimately unfulfilling this is. In the second act, where a marketing team works on an ad campaign, they stress that "salad imagery represents self-control and status."
The play satirizes female targeted advertising, mocking the stereotype of the hyper-feminine, exercise-obsessed sorority girl with slogans like "For When You Can't Even" and "When Life Hands You Lulu Lemon." A commercial for salad that sounds more like a pharmaceutical ad plays over a scene transition, listing the possible side effects of salad including "dizziness" and "night blindness." All of this unifies into a no-holds-barred feminist critique of society's pressures and marketing's reliance on shame to reinforce unreasonable expectations.
These moments of satire and critique are the strongest in the play, forcing both Guy and the audience to re-evaluate their pre-conceived notions about femininity, beauty, and the peculiar challenges of womanhood. Tori comments that most of her friends are men because she can't stand the drama of women. This brings to mind Roxane Gay's essay on female friendship in "Bad Feminist," stating, " If you are the kind of woman who says, 'I'm mostly friends with guys,' and act like you're proud of that, like that makes you closer to being a man or something and less of a woman as if being a woman is a bad thing . . . If you feel like it's hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren't the problem. Maybe it's just you." This seems true in Tori's case in her role as a woman obsessed with pleasing men in disregard of her own tastes or comfort levels — she asks Meredith with genuine curiosity how she can enjoy herself during sex when "there's so much of her." Tori is ignorant that her friendships with women falter because of her competitiveness and inability to see herself outside of her value as an object of desire.
In the second act, Callaghan takes a note out of Caryl Churchill's book, swapping the genders of all cast members, with David Clayton Rogers portraying a female boss who "leans in" and the actresses taking on bro-tastic versions of male advertising gurus. It invites the audience to consider how opposing genders view each other, particularly encouraging us to view men as vapid, shallow, and dim, as some undoubtedly view women. However, it falls a bit flat in its execution, leaning too heavily on stereotypes of the fratty "mansplainer" without making room for the same complexity women are afforded in the first act.
Still, the production leaves much to chew on and it offers a veritable salad bar of talent in its four cast members. They all offer nuanced, lived-in takes on their characters and though they inhabit an exaggerated reality, it's not difficult to perceive them as real people. Rogers, imbued with a cross between Paul Rudd's boyish charm and Ethan Hawke's introspection, brings Guy's crippling indecision and frustration to vivid life. Banes lifts socialite Sandy out of caricature, her unrealized hopes always just below the surface of her demanding matriarch, threatening to explode her carefully groomed lifestyle. Kirkpatrick makes the vapid, thin, gorgeous girlfriend a figure of sympathy — someone so paralyzed by her need to be desirable that she forsakes her own personality. Walcott's Meredith is thrilling — her veneer of confidence magnetic to both Guy and the audience. She layers her gutsy public face with an underlying ache to be viewed as more than an object of lust.
A minor quibble — Meredith is referred to throughout the production as "ample" and notable for her size, while Walcott as an actress simply is not. This could be an intentional comment on unattainable beauty and weight standards, but if so, it is not pointed enough to play as such.
Keith Mitchell's scenic design is intriguing; the slick lines and colors mirror the tones of women's advertising, which is reflected in projections throughout. Ann Closs-Farley's costuming shines in a dream sequence that features a burlesque costume meant to appear made of lettuce, and elsewhere it lends appropriate realism to the proceedings. The play begs a horrible pun about the "dressing room," but lettuce move on.
All in all, "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" is a fascinating, satirical take on femininity, societal pressures, and the way we perceive both women and men. It captures you fully with its biting wit, deftly zinging between scenarios. Defying easy categorization or summary, the production is both expertly executed and challenging to process. If it were a salad, it would be dressed with a tangy vinaigrette, not something cream-based and comforting. Some prefer their theater to lull them into complacency, and Callaghan's work takes the opposite tack: daring you to piece together a rich array of ideas and themes.
"Women Laughing Alone with Salad" is playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (9820 Washington Blvd.) through April 3rd. For more information, visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
To contact staff reporter Maureen Lee Lenker, email her at maureenlee08@gmail or follow her on Twitter @maureenlee89.