Joanna Tope and Gavin Jon Wright in the Brits Off Broadway production of Douglas Maxwell's A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, directed by Orla O'Loughlin, at 59E59 Theaters.
Joanna Tope and Gavin Jon Wright in the Brits Off Broadway production of Douglas Maxwell's A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, directed by Orla O'Loughlin, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Jeremy Abrahams)

Two very different short plays are now running as a double bill at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival. The first takes video games as its inspiration, and the second, vulgarity. Both focus on female empowerment, and to a lesser degree, on how language defines us — but only one delivers a solid punch.

At the beginning of Clean, a recorded introduction, spoken by the author, Sabrina Mahfouz, reveals that the inspiration for her play was a remark made by a male video-game writer who said that women aren't the heroes of video games because they don't have the everyday street-crime adventures that men do. Taking umbrage at this comment, Mahfouz gives us a Charlie's Angels trio of criminals: Egyptian, street-talking Zainab (Emma Dennis-Edwards); British, "posh"-talking Chloe (Jade Anouka); and Russian-accented Katya (Chloe Massey). These three deal only in "clean" crimes, meaning, in Zainab's words, "no death no blood no mess kinda thing but still illegal as sin."

Emma Dennis Edwards, Chloe Massey, and Jade Anouka in the Brits Off Broadway production of Sabrina Mahfouz's Clean, directed by Orla O'Loughlin, at 59E59 Theaters.
Emma Dennis Edwards, Chloe Massey, and Jade Anouka in the Brits Off Broadway production of Sabrina Mahfouz's Clean, directed by Orla O'Loughlin, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Jeremy Abrahams)

What follows is a quest by these three independent-minded bandits to steal a microchip that holds the program for a valuable video game — and, in the process, enact a bit of revenge on an enemy. Upon returning the microchip to the woman who hires them to steal it, they'll each be paid handsomely in diamonds or emeralds or whatever their hearts desire, and maybe these three lone wolves will realize that banding together as a team isn't as bad they had anticipated. Though the thought behind the play is intriguing, sadly it does not make for a very compelling stage production.

The riotous second half of this double bill, however, makes it all worthwhile. A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity is a genial, funny, endearing two-hander by Douglas Maxwell that tells the story of elderly Annabelle Love (Joanna Tope), a woman in late middle age whose wealthy husband, a business owner, has just died. She meets one of her deceased husband's employees, Jim Dick (Gavin Jon Wright), whose thick Scottish accent is laden with lots of charming profanity. Fascinated by the way Jim inadvertently describes her husband by using a vulgar word beginning with the letter c, Mrs. Love asks Jim to teach her the proper way to swear. A friendship develops between the two that's as comical as it is touching.

These two plays are an unlikely pair, but director Orla O'Loughlin finds two common threads between them: language and self-actualization. Chloe, Zainab, and Katya form an empowered threesome of women from very different backgrounds, evidenced by their heavy, distinctive accents. Despite their different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, the trio manages to unite in a common goal, proving that how a woman speaks and where a woman comes from does not determine what she's capable of. Though Dennis-Edwards, Massey, and Anouka all bring marvelous energy to the piece, the play suffers from a small stage that confines the actors' movements, as well as from an adventure story that contains little overt action, and a telescoped timeline (the whole story flits by in about an hour). Accents and attitude simply aren't enough.

In Respectable Widow, language becomes a woman's means of exploring her world, and in a sense, attempting to grieve for her dead husband in a way that the stifling language of her social circle does not allow her. Tope plays Mrs. Love with deft charm and splendid humor, and Wright, who dashes nervously about the stage like a Scottish Woody Allen, delivers a crisp, endearing portrayal of thick-accented, foul-mouthed Jim that makes profanity sound socially acceptable. Tope and Wright have such natural chemistry that one wishes for a little less "Clean" in this double bill and a little more "Vulgarity."