ARTS & CULTURE
Critic's Choice

'Women Laughing Alone With Salad': A playwright's raucous riff on sexism and body shame

Is “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” the first play inspired by an Internet meme? In 2011 the feminist website the Hairpin published stock photographs of slender models appearing to exult over forkfuls of mixed greens. We’d all seen these images in advertisements, but we’d never really looked at them, or wondered what, exactly, was so hilarious about salad. 

Sheila Callaghan, a writer for TV’s “Shameless” as well as a rising playwright, has taken up the question in “Women Laughing Alone,” a lavish new production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Callaghan developed the play at the Center Theatre Group's Writers' Workshop, and it premiered last fall in Washington, D.C.

The result at the Douglas is a mixed bag, full of wild and unexpected ingredients that are sometimes delicious, sometimes gross and often a combination of the two. You won’t find iceberg here. This salad might make you laugh harder than any you’ve eaten, but bite carefully. The chef is not always eager to please. She could even be a little dangerous.  

Two of Callaghan’s previous plays have premiered here in Southern California: “Everything You Touch” at Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena in 2014, and “Bed,” currently running at Echo Theater Company in L.A. Fans have familiarized themselves with her raffish sensibility and lacerating insights into how our culture portrays women. Still, fans may be surprised at the places she is willing — with the help of a brave cast and her game director, Neel Keller — to take us this time.

The show begins in high spirits, on a park bench where three women in chic outfits and painful-looking heels sit side by side eating bowls of salad, all trilling with forced laughter. Guy (David Clayton Rogers) wanders in and unwraps a burrito, and the women’s hungry attention makes him too uncomfortable to eat it. It’s the first of many imaginatively theatrical set pieces in this unconventionally told parable of gender identity and the subtle, sinister power of the media.

Guy is our antihero, “haunted,” as he later describes it, by women. He has an Oedipal thing for his mother Sandy (Lisa Banes), a former feminist activist who spends all her time and money on beauty treatments and who hopes that he will marry a very thin girl, preferably one with a “pronounced clavicle.”

Guy is dating the bulimic Tori (Nora Kirkpatrick), who is “so skinny that people worry about her.” But at the same time he’s drawn to Meredith (Dinora Z. Walcott), who’s considered fat at Size 8 (“OK, 10,” she admits). When Guy tells his mother that he’s interested in an “ample” girl, she responds icily, “How ample?” 

Guy is fed up with women’s body shame. He complains about Tori’s salad fixation. He is rightfully appalled at a particularly cruel beauty treatment he finds his mother enduring. He’s disappointed when Meredith, who at first seemed so liberated and fun-loving, reveals her own deep insecurities.

At the restaurant where he works as a waiter, women order individual, raw vegetables: a bell pepper, a broccoli spear, an onion. Rather than eating them, they rub them on their faces and bodies. Brilliantly saturated videos of the women rapturously fondling vegetables (by projection designer Keith Skretch) play against the backdrop, while Guy grabs a microphone and croons to his customers with dripping sarcasm: “It’s just an onion. It was a stupid thing to order in the first place.”

But Guy doesn't recognize his own complicity in a culture where women feel like failures if they don’t live up to idealized images. The irony deepens in the second act. It's four years later, Guy now works for an advertising agency and he’s in charge of a campaign for an antidepressant for women called Effervatol.

He’s changed a lot. For one thing, he’s now played by Banes, the actress who played his mother; and his two bro-ish underlings are played by the actresses who played Tori and Meredith, dressed as men. Costume designer Ann Closs-Farley has come up with wonderfully parodic male drag, and the three actresses lampoon men’s body language so ridiculously, yet persuasively, that the opening-night audience shrieked with laughter.

But Guy hasn’t changed as much as we might like: “I’m as frustrated as you are that women hate themselves,” he says flippantly to his new boss, an imposing woman (played by Rogers), as he pitches her the Effervatol campaign with photos of — what else? — women laughing alone with salad. "But what can I do about it?" he says with a shrug. His boss’ response is surprising, and surprisingly optimistic for such a biting sendup of our world. 

The script could use an edit or two. As a character, Guy is a bit too generic to be relatable — except when he suddenly reveals some very specific fixations that feel unrelated to the storyline. Some plot developments are too random, and sometimes Callaghan pushes a dirty joke, or a metaphor, so far beyond plausibility that the impact is weakened.

But she certainly gives us a lot to chew on, and the maniacal abundance of her approach is hard to resist, even (or especially) when it's gleefully vulgar. (People averse to blood, gore, human organs and vividly simulated sex acts may feel differently.) The production's high-quality set, projections, props and lighting also lend an air of legitimacy to even the wackiest scenes.

And Callaghan is an equal-opportunity satirist. She blames all of us (not just men) for perpetuating the expectations that make the world so hard for women. The gender-bending second act, which evokes Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” structurally and thematically, makes "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" more than a fierce, audacious rant; it holds out hope that awareness can change our narrative.

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“Women Laughing Alone With Salad"

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 3.

Tickets: $25-$55 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Follow The Times arts team @culturemonster.

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