Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad isn’t quite the female-centric piece you expect it to be. As anticipated, it comments on women’s attitudes about their bodies, the pressures they face to conform to a certain image and their experience of womanhood within our culture in general. But unlike Callaghan’s Bed (closing March 26 in Atwater), which is about a hot and sexy female iconoclast, or Everything You Touch, an award winner about a woman's search for self-validation (the play ran at Theatre@Boston Court last year), Women Laughing is told from a male perspective. It explores how a schlubby wannabe writer named Guy (David Clayton Rogers) copes with his mom, his girlfriend and the hot chick he spotted at the disco.
Tori (Nora Kirkpatrick), the woman Guy lives with, is an impossibly skinny and suspiciously anorexic blonde. She blathers inconsequentially about restaurants that serve fried sesame rice balls and the delights of wearing flip-flops. And she has incest issues, albeit deeply repressed ones.
Guy is pretty sure he doesn’t love her, but he hangs in because she tolerates his extracurricular activities, and participates as well. When Guy brings home Meredith (Dinora Z. Walcott), a sizzling, amply endowed gal he met at a club, the trio go at it in a scene of simulated sexual acrobatics as graphic as they come.
Guy’s mom, Sandy (Lisa Banes), is a supercilious Manhattan matron whom Guy despises and resists. Yet her hold on him is tenacious, and when she requests a favor — a sprint to the patisserie for a Bavarian chocolate espresso rum cake — he does it. Like Tori, Sandy harbors perverse secrets.
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Callaghan’s a master of edgy dialogue spoken by characters who let it out all hang out. But Women Laughing, which is directed by Neel Keller, with lively costumes by Ann Closs-Farley and scopic closeups of the women by videographer Keith Skretch, doesn’t really get rolling until the second act. Walcott is immensely watchable in her layered performance of a gal out to score, but despite its bizarre twists, the story and its other characters don’t grab you.
It’s only after intermission that the production really takes off. Time has moved forward and Guy, now played by Banes in drag, is working for a high-flying ad firm. Kirkpatrick and Walcott, playing men, are Guy's underlings, helping him develop an ad campaign for a pharmaceutical directed at women. The satire here is keener, and the performances of Banes and Kirkpatrick (Walcott is good across the board) sharper and smarter as well. It’s the first time that the Guy character really comes into focus and you gain insight and involvement into what makes him tick.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through April 3. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.