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Dress Suits to Hire

Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw in
Dress Suits to Hire
(Photo © Eva Weiss)
The current revival of Dress Suits to Hire features the same renowned actresses from the play's premiere production in 1987, but that's not the main reason to see it. The real star is the giddy script, collaboratively written by Holly Hughes and the show's performers, that continues to engage us after nearly 20 years.

Described as a "lesbian noir" piece, Dress Suits tells all about two women, Deeluxe and Michigan, who are shacking up in the lobby of a clothing rental shop in the East Village. As the action begins, the more butch partner, Deeluxe (Peggy Shaw), slips on a pair of nylon stockings while singing a love song in a husky baritone. She wears gender roles as one might put on a shirt, seeming equally comfortable in a button-down item or a camisole. Moments later, she asphyxiates herself with her right arm, but this becomes only a minor obstacle; even death is but a costume for these women. (Incidentally, the aforementioned arm develops into its own character named "Little Peter" later in the play.)

The writing displays an almost hypnotic fascination with language; every page is loaded with double-entendres and florid prose. For example, Michigan (Lois Weaver) tells the police that she first "discovered" the body of her seemingly deceased lover in the Hotel Universal in Salamanca. That's only one of many sexual puns in this erotically charged work. At other times, the humor takes on a more vaudevillian style. When Deeluxe finally comes to after her self-asphyxiation, the first thing she asks for is the car keys. Michigan tells her that she has "expired," and this leads to snappy repartée worthy of Laurel and Hardy:

DEELUXE: Why? My license is good!
MICHIGAN: Not your license! You're no good. You're expired. They won't let a dead woman run around in a Chevrolet!

Weaver (who also directs the production) and Shaw have the onstage chemistry of two consummate performers in a labor of love. Weaver's role is the more aggressive of the two, and the more womanly. In the world of this play, femininity is a potentially dangerous force, and Weaver portrays her character's sexuality as predatory. On the other hand, Shaw's masculinity expresses itself in violent but ultimately ineffectual gestures that hint at her character's repression.

Just as the play bends reality into its own meta-narrative framework, the designers create many different worlds with broad and simple strokes. Leilah Stewart's inspired set design starts at the shop, where the titular neon sign is falling apart at the corner. The theme of the evening is shabby minimalism; a couple of garment racks stand in for an entire place of business, while a hanging Chinese lantern (courtesy of lighting designer Lori E. Seid) indicates a moonlit night. Susan Young has provided the elegant costumes -- dresses, suits, and everything in between -- that are the play's running metaphor. Despite the piece's manic shifts and energetic pace, Weaver directs the action with a steady hand.


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