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The cast of Sealed For Freshness:
(back row) Kate Van Devender, Shawn Curran, Jill Van Note;
(front row) Nancy Hornback, J.J. Van Name, and Jeanne Hime
(Photo: © Suzanne Sutcliffe Photography)
Sealed For Freshness is a time-capsule play that really works. A hilarious and inventive treatment of a topic that's not wholly fresh -- repressed '60s housewives questioning their lives -- the show has been impeccably prepared and executed like a gourmet version of a standard dish, a slice of sweetly sour apple pie that makes you say, "This is what all the others are trying to be." With echoes of plays such as Doug Field's Down South, which ran at the Rattlestick two years ago, Sealed For Freshness stands out as the best of its kind that I've seen.

Author-director Doug Stone keeps audiences in stitches with this Pantheon Theater production, but there's more to the play than its humor. The highest compliment to Stone's efforts is that he's written female characters which his stellar cast clearly take great pleasure in playing. As the show opens, we meet Bonnie (Jill Van Note) and her husband Richard (Shawn Curran) in their living room as the latter prepares for bowling night with his lodge buddies. They squabble about their marriage in a funny exchange touched off by the show's smashing first line: "It's not a liquored-up lesbian orgy, it's a Tupperware party!" On a cruelly accurate set designed by Rob Odorisio and Steven Capone, Bonnie's gestures and bearing are agitated but not hysterical as her dissatisfaction with Richard simmers. Walking the line between maudlin and funny, between caricature and portrait, and between farce and feeling is difficult; but, for the most part, the play and the production manage to do just that.

The party's organizer, Bonnie's friend and Tupperseller Jean (Nancy Hornback), arrives bearing the news that regional Tuppersales champ Diane, who has just moved in nearby, will be attending. Hornback's Jean provides the show's center from which things fall apart. Trying to keep things moving -- products as well as conversations -- Jean is the night's increasingly anxious traffic cop. Though not explicitly discussed, her discomfort in her upscale marriage fills her with nervous energy, conveyed with comic brittleness by the gifted Hornback in her New York theater debut.

Even so, Jean's the least disillusioned of the group and is trying to remain so -- except for Tracy Ann, the clueless, coltish Iowan who attracts the stares of the other women's husbands, to everyone's consternation. Tracy Ann is the only caricature here; her air-headed astonishment at the tension in the room is evident when Kate Van Devender chirps, "You almost made me throw up my Salisbury Steak dinner!" We never quite learn as much about Bonnie's marriage as we think we will, but we do learn more about Jean's idol, Tupperqueen Diane, than we expect. A widowed, willowy blonde, Diane is successful in her career and the only one of the group who has an unimpeachable relationship with her husband. When Sinclaire, the enormously pregnant mother of four, swaggers in with a chip on her shoulder and a discount shopper's dress on her body, we meet the group's resident outcast and antagonist. And when the group votes to break the Tupperware party rule banning alcohol, the cocktail of polyester, plastics, and pathos becomes intoxicatingly comical.

Jeanne Hime, Nancy Hornback, Kate Van Devender,
and Jill Van Note in Sealed For Freshness
(Photo: © Suzanne Sutcliffe Photography)
In a pre-show announcement, Stone attributed his intimacy with this 1960s female milieu to the boredom of a small-town childhood that drove him to tune in to the local mothers' attempts to wrestle their frustrations into plastic containers. The Sealed For Freshness actors seem so grateful for decently written parts and assured direction that their performances generate real laughter in each other onstage, taking them close to those giddy Carol Burnett Show moments when none of the players could keep a straight face and the audience loved watching them lose it. At the performance I attended, one spectator was so overcome by laughter that she had to choke through the joke-free moments to keep from disrupting the show. Bring your tongue depressors and your asthma medication!

Sealed For Freshness catches us off guard by taking us far into Diane's life rather than Bonnie's; we wonder why the only woman whose husband we've met doesn't get to unpack more of her baggage. But the show's central revelations are of Diane and the resentful Sinclaire, as Bonnie and Jean try to keep Sinclaire from provoking Diane and everyone else. J.J. Van Name's performance as Sinclaire is priceless -- she's a Rizzo with no Pink Ladies, just plastic ladies who condemn her smoking, her drinking, and her pain. Van Name makes Sinclaire's ferocity real, her schadenfreude hilarious, and her desperation palpable.

That the over-the-top situation that develops in the play's final moments becomes a device for easy resolution is easily forgiven. With terrific costumes by Rob Bevenger and Derk Lockwood, and admirable performances all around, this show does something only live comedy can do: It makes its audiences loopy with giddiness.

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