Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney in Afterbirth: Kathy and Mo's Greatest Hits(Photo © Michael Lamont)
Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney in Afterbirth: Kathy and Mo's Greatest Hits
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
Just before Afterbirth: Kathy and Mo's Greatest Hits begins, sound designer Jon Gottlieb plays a mood-setting string of other people's greatest hits. The Jacksons twitter when Michael was the same age as some of his current best friends; Cyndi Lauper chirrups "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."

The Lauper hit, heard just before the reunited Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney appear as angels planning the world as we know it, is there for irony. Najimy and Gaffney have always declared themselves feminists and the ideas for many of their sketches spring from their urgent need to comment on feminist causes that are serious rather than fun. Also, in the routines performed here, the girls, er, women who just want to have fun usually find that it's an impossible wish.

This is certainly true in what I regard as the greatest of Kathy and Mo's greatest hits. It's set in a (Nashville?) bar with a neon Budweiser sign product-placed by set designer Allen Moyer, who keeps the show's look bright and clean. (The same can be said for costume designer Linda Ross and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger.) At the bar, a drunk named Hank (Najimy) with an unlit cigarette dangling precariously from his upper lip puts the moves on the perky Karen Sue (Gaffney). Repeatedly telling the lady that she looks "ver', ver' pretty tonight," Hank can't keep his hands off her or stop himself from proposing marriage. When he nods off for a few moments, however, Karen Sue figuratively lets down her swept-to-the-side wing of hair and confesses that she's a lonely single mother. Later, she tells the already-hitched Hank that she might take him up on his offer.

In another sketch, the comediennes bring back Maddie (Gaffney) and Syvvie (Najimy), suburban ladies of a certain age who've decided to keep up with the zeitgeist. They're screamingly amusing on the subject of women's studies; but when Syvvie excuses herself, Maddie continues fondling her mink stole while discussing her nephew and his friend, who are in the midst of dealing with AIDS. Just briefly, the cracks in her positive outlook are revealed.

The slimmed-down Najimy and the somewhat-stockier-than-before Gaffney have claimed that they're now better actresses after having pursued separate careers. That may be so. The acting throughout -- in their "Sister/Womyn/Sister" take-off of feminist theater, for instance -- is stuffed with hilarious details. But they also seem to be having a great time just being together. From beginning to end, there's physical touching of the sort that says the partners are totally at ease with one another. In the second piece, wherein two Italian-American teenagers enjoy a bedroom gabfest, Najimy and Gaffney give the impression of improvising some of the mindless banter. Maybe they are slipping in fresh lines, maybe not. Maybe it's just that the insightful director Mark Brokaw has helped them maximize their naturalistic behavior.

For their return to the New York stage as a team, Kathy and Mo have come up with two new hunks of material that may or may not be added to their greatest hits list. Both vignettes look to be the sort of item they wouldn't have concocted before motherhood and incipient middle age hit them. (Najimy has a seven-year-old daughter, single mother Gaffney a four-year-old son.) In one, members of the Disney Mothers Support Group meet to discuss their treatment in the classic cartoons. Gaffney and Najimy have noticed that mothers don't get much cel time in Disney movies and have decided to be funny about the situation while calling belated attention to it: Belle's mother (Beauty and the Beast) pulls up a 12-step chair as do Patty Rella (mother of Cinderella), Dumbo's booming-voiced mom, and Bambi's mater, who's killed in the flick's first 10 minutes. But even though Najimy and Gaffney shift from angry mother to angry mother in so many heartbeats, they don't find enough strong lines to sustain the potent premise.

Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffneyin Afterbirth: Kathy and Mo's Greatest Hits(Photo © Michael Lamont)
Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney
in Afterbirth: Kathy and Mo's Greatest Hits
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
As it happens, a number of the greatest hits have weak endings and even slow patches. In an interview about reexamining the material, Najimy has said, "I used to be intense about cutting things. We'd go over and over what to cut and what not to cut. I usually don't want to cut anything. This time around, I'm quick to cut things." Well, she wasn't quick enough; even the delectable Hank-Karen Sue exchange might have benefited from some minor scissoring. As for the fade-away codas of several sequences, maybe they prevail because Najimy and Gaffney consider themselves slice-of-life authors rather than revue writers. Yet the impression remains that, had they thought for a few more minutes when they were tailoring the routines, they might have found more trenchant wrap-ups for them.

A big finish probably isn't necessary for the other debuting sequence, which consists of intertwined monologues about plastic surgery delivered by a rich Hollywood divorcée (Najimy) and a making-do housewife (Gaffney). Once again, the comic actresses allow women whose lives are far from everything they'd hoped they'd be to expose their darker thoughts, and the aperçus abound. The drollest comes from Gaffney's mother who, folding laundry while a confidante listens, admits that she's considered Botox but declined because she wouldn't be able to frown in the way that lets her family know she disapproves of some misdemeanor or another.

During the intermission, I headed to the corner for coffee but was stopped in my race by a woman trailing after me who said, "Do you mind if I ask you a question? Why are you leaving?" I explained that I wasn't leaving and then thought to ask her if she was. "Yes," she said. "I don't get it. I'm middle-aged and I don't get it. So I'm going home." I didn't know what to say to her because I did get it; so did the rest of the audience, if the howls and cheers were to be trusted. And "it" has nothing to do with middle-age since much of the material was written when Najimy and Gaffney were in their 20s and is again being appreciated in large measure by ticket-buyers who were also in their 20s when these bits were new. What I wanted to say to the departing patron was that there's really nothing to "get": Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney share a funny, urgent outlook on life. Their combined expression of it earns them responses of the sort that might greet a rock band reprising greatest hits on a national tour, and I'm glad to add my own personal whoop-whoop.