IN THESE DAYS of gender anomie, only a neutered maverick or a penis-packing fool would try to map the sexi-spiritual terrain of three young women in search of happiness. In his play Women of Manhattan, playwright John Patrick Shanley appears to be a bit of both. On one hand, Shanley's female characters are all appealingly intelligent, good-hearted, slightly neurotic women who have yet to find their romantic ideal: a nice guy with whom they can have Richter-scale sex. On the other hand, the play suggests, these same women might not be looking for a nice guy at all; instead--and here's the sketchy part if you're the fellow doing the typing--they might want a manly-man who can dominate, humiliate, control, and even abuse them.
Now, this view of the female psyche may not go down very well at Dworkinite kaffeeklatsches, but it does make for a fascinating (and often amusing) study of sexual dynamics. And at the Pillsbury House Theatre, under the direction of Ralph Remington, Shanley's script receives the sort of balanced staging it needs to tread such volatile ground without appearing the diatribe of some crazed disciple of Robert Bly.
The play takes place in the apartment of Rhonda (Heidi Hunter Batz), where she and her two best friends, Judy (Noël Raymond) and Billie (Quimby Lombardozzi), have decided to do something radical--get together without men. In these women's estimation, all men are a bunch of stupid, insensitive, emotionally detached assholes. And gay to boot, even if they haven't owned up to it yet.
Yet underneath the feminist posturing, these women secretly yearn for--and eventually get--a much less correct brand of treatment. Judy, a mannish, unwitting "fag hag," finally meets someone who can penetrate her strong-woman defenses, a black intellectual stud played by Ralph Remington. And Billie, a sexually unfulfilled flirt whose marriage is going nowhere, finally gets her husband (Brian Goranson) to do something decidedly unromantic, which, in a perverse twist of logic, is her dream come true.
Only Rhonda, the play's moral anchor, rejects her friends' sudden lust for power games and roughhousing. In the production's best performance, Heidi Hunter Batz's Rhonda agonizes over the loss of her boyfriend, and, like the audience, reacts with conflicted emotions to her friends' disturbingly atavistic paths toward spiritual salvation.
What carries Women of Manhattan through such thorny material is an acute feel for human nature's inherent contradictions and a healthy profusion of humor. Billie, Rhonda, and Judy make an art out of trashing men; they're also relatively honest about the tornado of insecurities they bring to the discussion. Yet the classic comedic moment is stolen by a man: When Billie's husband explains why it takes him 35 minutes to cook a couple of hamburgers, it proves that too much brainpower around the barbecue pit is a dangerous thing.
But if the male-authored Women of Manhattan has its disquieting moments, the second part of Pillsbury's double bill, Brunette Breck Girl, written and performed by Heidi Arneson, is one long, brutal assault on your comfort level. Entirely naked except for a chain binding her wrists, Arneson plays Virginia, a girl trapped in the basement of the family home, where abuse and incest are domestic routine.
Arneson has made a career meting out revenge on her family via performance art. Unfortunately, Brunette Breck Girl lacks the irony and wit that have previously carried her. It's clear that Arneson is still in the process of developing this piece, as the detail of the performance has yet to catch up with the writing. So far, this "work in progress" is little more than storytelling in the nude.
For at least a couple of years I have been hoping that Arneson--one of the most gifted performance artists in town--might someday stop re-creating the adolescent, blame-your-family scripts that were in vogue, oh, about a decade ago. Brunette Breck Girl offers a ray of hope that Arneson might finally be ready to make the leap. In it, she vivisects her entire family with a butcher knife.
Now that the family is dead can we please move on?
Women of Manhattan plays at the Pillsbury House Theatre through Aug. 2;Brunette Breck Girlplays Saturdays only. Call 825-0459.