Ephron comedy, at Cherry Center, June 16, 2013

Love, Loss and What I Wore is also good for men

full cast LLWIW (condensed)By Philip Pearce

Despite meager press coverage, the word of mouth had obviously buzzed excitedly around: Love, Loss and What I Wore was worth seeing—at least if you were a woman. From my seat in the packed auditorium, I wondered what the five other male ticket holders and I were going to make of it all: five women at music stands talking about the ups and downs of love and the vagaries of female fashion.

Well…monologue, for starters, is a genre I have never warmed to. It’s always seemed to me like a prose writer’s sneaky end run through the back door of theater, which I believe is still essentially about show not tell. What is often skillful narrative is served up as drama by shoving it and some actor onto a stage, which is supposed to be a space where it’s all happening here and now, not being recalled and reminisced about.

What I had underestimated if not really overlooked was that “LL & WIW” is the work of the late Nora Ephron, who, in tandem with her gifted sister Delia, was responsible for some of the wittiest and most touching films of the past 30 years. And what’s more, this production gets a quintet of knock-out readings that are as funny and perceptive as anything currently happening in Monterey theatre. The women at the music stands could have been talking to us about mahjong or Viennese pastry and that would have been okay. Ten minutes into the action, I was saying, “What’s not to like?”

A troubled and impulsive New Yorker named Gingy gives the piece its central spine and structure. Played with winning warmth and a sure sense of comic timing by Susan Keenan, Gingy is the one character who stays with us from beginning to end, as she moves through a series of clever blown-up fashion drawings that landmark her progress from quarrelsome pre-teen to doting grandma. Gingy’s story, adolescence, teen dating, chaotic affairs, marriage, divorce and more marriage, is interspersed with other stories, brief or detailed, from Anne Mitchell, Jill Jackson, Jovita Molina and Carol Marquart, in a kaleidoscope of women whose battles with romance and haute couture tend to comment on and deepen the impact of Gingy’s struggles—and vice versa.

There are the set pieces, like Mitchell’s refreshingly carefree gal who gladly admits she hasn’t the slightest bit of fashion sense and couldn’t care less. Later she tops even that high point with “I Hate My Purse,” a detailed expose of the horrors of the female handbag so ruthlessly accurate that you heard murmurs of agreement and giggles of recognition as she delivered it and a round of well deserved applause when she finished. Then there was Jackson in a funny and pathetic meditation on two successive proms, one with Mr. Wrong, the next with Mr. Right, and neither one a real success. Jackson has an ability to combine the most acidic of wisecracks with a sudden flick of pathos that I haven’t seen equaled since the days of Jean Arthur.

Jovita Molina offered a sexy and winning description of the erotic effect of high heeled shoes; and, in one of the evening’s unexpected topics of discussion, Carol Marquart perceptively considered what you ought to wear for surgery—first the reconstructive cosmetic kind, then, more chillingly, for cancer.

The Ephrons’ adaptation of Ilene Beckerman’s best-selling book is however not just a series of individual spoken arias. There are moments when family groups comment and squabble about dating and clothing choices—and group cadenzas on themes like the color black or the shock of expanding dress sizes. I was particularly impressed with a segment in which Jackson and Molina tell two seemingly unrelated stories that gradually intertwine like a fugue in a way that slowly but surely ties them one to the other. And the closing moment, with all five of these fine performers talking at once, in a warm and dotty symphony of comment, complaint and aspiration, was a fitting conclusion to an event I had approached with hesitation and had experienced with pleasure.