Lisa Lampanelli returns with her weighty comedy.
Lisa Lampanelli is defiantly funny. She rejects your pity, even if you feel like that is the correct posture for the moment. That's one of the things we love about the stand-up comedian and author of Stuffed, which has returned off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre following a 2016 run with WP Theater. This four-person comedy jam session about women and food still retains much of what made it funny and daring a year ago, despite significant changes to the script, cast, and direction.
It takes place in a kind of kitchen-themed purgatory. Lisa (Lampanelli) bursts forth from a padlocked refrigerator and begins a stand-up routine about all the weight she's gained and lost in her life ("17 Sarah Jessica Parkers"). She is soon joined by Katey (Marsha Stephanie Blake), Marty (Lauren Ann Brickman), and Britney (Eden Malyn), all of whom have something to add. Britney has struggled with anorexia and bulimia since her grandmother offered her a laxative at age 7. Katey can eat whatever she wants and never lose her model-perfect shape, earning her the resentment of other women. The full-figured Marty isn't one of those women, though: She's perfectly happy being large and in charge.
The four women rant about gimmicky diets and the arbitrary nature of sizing in women's clothes. None of them seem to know each other outside this ethereal kitchen, where they have been drawn together to parse out their darkest thoughts and impulses about food. Stuffed is basically what it would look like if Jean-Paul Sartre produced a show on the Food Network.
Lampanelli may wrap her social critique in profanity with the zeal of Paula Deen wrapping breadsticks in bacon, but her observations are astute nonetheless: "I hate Lululemon. Every rich white chick in Westport, Connecticut, wears them," Marty declares about the luxury athletic-wear retailer, putting her finger on the intersection of size, race, and class in a way few plays ever do. Lampanelli presents those observations in an unconventional form that resembles a team stand-up routine rather than a living room-bound sitcom (which is how it looked last year).
Director Jackson Gay has completely restaged the show to account for this more presentational tone: The women participate in a mock game show and a surreal beauty pageant. At one point, they burst out of the kitchen cabinets like they're on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Suddenly, the hospital green paint job and '60s sparkle wallpaper on Antje Ellermann's set make total sense. While the upstage area seems crowded, it serves to push the performers downstage, which is a smart choice for a deep, low house like this. Amith Chandrashaker's flashy lighting and Elisheba Ittoop's cartoonish sound project the performances out into the audience, resulting in an evening that is more vaudeville than confession.
Unfortunately, Jessica Ford's reimagined costumes are a misfire: While Marty dons a nice business casual pantsuit, the other women wear unflattering jumpsuits in various shades of pink, like participants in a renegade breast-cancer-awareness rally. These shapeless, unsightly costumes might be designed to disguise the fact that, while this is ostensibly a play about four women of different body types, it is performed by three thin actors joined by one large actor — but we still notice.
That's not to say that the four actors are bad in their roles. Malyn embodies the duel fierceness and frailty in a character like Britney. Blake rises above her costume to have moments of genuine glamour. Lampanelli exhibits her usual comic timing and willingness to go there (she is the author, after all, so ad-libs are allowed). Brickman (who started as understudy to the now-departed Nikki Blonsky) regularly steals everyone's thunder with her brassy, bold portrayal of Marty.
Stuffed deserves points for boldness. It takes what could be a weepy very-important-issue play and turns it into 85 minutes of unapologetic comedy. Sometimes, the best way to vanquish our demons is to laugh at them.