During the curtain speech for Stuffed, her new play at the McGinn/Cazale, Lisa Lampanelli warns, "If you came here for the Women's Project's hourly lesbian poetry slam, please exit the theater immediately." Known mostly for her blistering stand-up comedy routines (in which no sex, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is left unscathed), Lampanelli shows her sensitive side in this exploration of the tumultuous relationship between women and food, without sacrificing any of the biting humor that has led to her coronation as the "lovable queen of mean." It isn't likely to win a Pulitzer, but that doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile addition to the off-Broadway ecosystem.
Four women sit around a cheese platter sipping wine and telling war stories about food: Lisa (Lampanelli) has struggled with her weight for years. Katey (Zainab Jah) faces a lot of resentment over her model figure. Rail-thin Britney (Jessica Luck) suffers from body dysmorphia and a history of anorexia, while Stacey (the super funny Ann Harada) is perfectly happy with her luscious curves. They talk about calories and clothes, diets and dating, occasionally ceding the floor so that one of the performers can monologue. Passages about exercise and the dreaded scale take on an almost poetic quality, making this show feel more like a multigenre theatrical dive into an idea than a traditional drama. It might alternately be titled For Chubby Girls Who Have Considered Gastric Bypass / When the Rainbow Cookie Isn't Enuf.
Director Jackson Gay stages this succession of moments with lively efficiency, never surrendering the stage to dead air. It takes place in what looks like a typical New York City apartment, complete with laminate floors and a refrigerator uncomfortably close to the couch. Scenic designer Antje Ellermann decorates the space with contradictory items like a stack of diet books and a cake stand, little clues to illuminate the occupant's daily food dramas.
Jessica Ford's intelligent costume design literally adds more layers to the performances: Britney wears an oversize cardigan to completely obscure her frame while Lisa and Stacey lounge around in black stretchy pants, comfy at any size. Kudos to sound designer Elisheba Ittoop for underscoring the Perfect Weight Mountain fantasy sequence with a harp arrangement of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls": You're hilarious.
Granted, the writing isn't always as tight and specific as the design: An extended overture during which the actors list various junk foods goes on entirely too long and is liable to make some audience members tune out before the play really even begins. Also, we never really get a sense of the relationship among these four very different women and how they came to be in this room. Is it a support group? Or is it just four friends shooting the breeze, like a more honest version of Sex and the City? This basic information would help to ground the story in the reality it is invoking.
First-time playwright Lampanelli seems to be aware of the roughness of her dramaturgy when, in a comically florid program note, she advises us to, "Let the beauty and wisdom of my writing wash over you like a soothing word shower, each vowel and consonant cleansing away the grime of your mundane existence." She may not be the next Shakespeare, but you can't accuse her of being unfunny: The one-liners are hysterical, and no matter how serious things get, we know a joke is always around the corner.
Acknowledging her stand-up pedigree, Lampanelli produces a hand mic and steps out from the scene during her monologues. She tells a story about her 400-pound boyfriend that is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking, especially when she recalls the day she asked him to move out after realizing that he was eating himself to death. "If you need something, you call. Remember – I know a coupla guys," the mafioso wannabe tells her as he departs.
"Yeah," she responds forlornly, "Ben and Jerry."
One has to admire Lampanelli for writing a funny play about weight and eating disorders. Such radioactive issues are too often treated with unwavering seriousness in our confessional theater, lest the playwright be accused of causing offense. Lampanelli gleefully flips off this fear and its resulting orthodoxy. It's an absolute delight to behold, helping us to overlook any technical shortcomings in the writing. Her characters aren't just tragic (which would actually be a more reassuring choice for an audience looking for figures to pity): They're witty, strong, and intelligent women surviving in spite of a real problem — one that is a lot more common than we'd like to think.
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