Mark Setlock, Daiva Deupree, Jenn Harris,
and Matthew Wilkas in Pageant Play
(© Kevin Sprague)
Mark Setlock, Daiva Deupree, Jenn Harris,
and Matthew Wilkas in Pageant Play
(© Kevin Sprague)
Has ever an industry so invited lampooning as the pint-size beauty-contest circuit? In the hilarious new Pageant Play, now debuting at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, co-authors and creators Mark Setlock and Matthew Wilkas -- here with the help of two knock-out leading ladies (Jenn Harris and Daiva Deupree) -- have come up with a crowd-pleaser that's a beauty in its own right.

Setlock and Wilkas play "finesse" coaches Bobby and Bob, who are presenting their seminar titled "IS MY CHILD A PAGEANT QUEEN AND IF NOT, CAN I MAKE HER ONE?" Bobby gets right down to brass tacks: "Who here has a ugly child? Raise your hands!" As it turns out, though, lack of beauty is apparently no impediment to the all-important win, achievable through the not-so-ambiguously gay duo's plan of attack. Listed by the handy acronym "SHEIT" (pronounced just as you would imagine, with a country twang), it comprises Smile, Hair, Eyes, Illusion, "and, if all else fails, Talent."

The seminar is really just a framing device for the meat of the play, which sets Pinky (Harris), a pitbull of a career stage mom, against innocent newbie Marge (Deupree), as they -- or, rather, their four-year-old daughters -- proceed through a series of showdowns with escalating stakes. In a brilliant staging conceit, these prize offspring -- "Chevrolet" and "Puddle," respectively -- are represented by two empty spangled and tulle-skirted costumes, which the mothers are free to yank hither and yon, or toss aside like toys grown tiresome. It's a sight gag that never grows stale under Martha Banta's nimble direction.

To be fair, Marge -- who, mysteriously, goes by another name when talking on the phone with her bullying husband (Setlock, sans blond wig), who's in jail for spousal abuse -- is a lot more solicitous than her counterpart. She seems genuinely fond of her little beauty, and not just for the prize money that starts pouring in.

Pinky is an all-out monster, scheming on her leopard-skin chaise longue while demanding that her worshipful husband (Wilkas, again in the submissive role) massage her feet. But we even start to have a little sympathy for this heartless martinet once we see the pressure that her own mother (Duepree, tottering under the weight of a giant martini glass) brought to bear on her daughter. "This flashback is over," Pinky announces -- if only it were so easy.

The play happily proceeds towards a frothy finale that turns Luke Hegel-Cantarella's pink-plywood set into a Feydeau-like whirl of flapping doors. But even as it ends, one suspects this endeavor seems assured of a long afterlife on the theater circuit.