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STAGE REVIEW : ‘MRS. CALIFORNIA’ BATTLES SEXISM WITH LAUGHS

Times Theater Writer

Doris Baizley’s “Mrs. California,” which opened Sunday at the L.A. Public Theatre (at the Coronet), deftly strikes the first blow for feminism as comedy--and a welcome step down it is from the soapbox.

Since the re-emergence of feminism in the late ‘60s, it’s gone from vociferous militancy to relative calm, but a real measure of the growing awareness of any ideology is our ability to laugh about it. Baizley’s comedy, which had originated at the Taper last November as part of its New Theatre for Now, laughs with its feminism. It takes a long, unaffectionate look back at those silly contests about femininity ad absurdum--in this case the Mrs. California competition of 1955.

With a light and clever hand, it shows us how painfully demeaning and patently ridiculous the phony game-playing was and is.

Can Dot (Deborah May), who singlehandedly saved a Navy convoy by correctly deciphering a coded message during World War II, be content sewing aprons and making avocado ring molds? (Says Dot: “Sounds like a disease.”)

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Can Babs (Jean Smart), the electrical engineering whiz in World War II’s factory trenches, forget what she knows and be a good girl now that the war is over and that men are here to do the job?

Of course not. So why does everyone expect them to--other women as well as men?

Dot actually tries to fit in, hard enough that she makes it to the finals in this Mrs. California contest--sewing, cooking, ironing at 60 breathless miles a minute.

Babs, who entered her in the contest as Mrs. Los Angeles, knows Dot is the best candidate. She’s ready to lie, steal, cheat and short-wire the sewing machines if need be to make sure the best man wins. She also knows that she herself could never put up with this nonsense.

Baizley’s probe of the feminine mystique is deceptively simple. It only hits you later that under all the fun are currents that could sink a ship.

Sure, it’s funny watching the all-American Mrs. San Bernardino (Susan Krebs) vying with that calculated sophisticate Mrs. San Francisco (Frances Conroy) and pitting pot roast and potatoes against Paella Valenciana.

It’s funny, too, noting that tacky, plump, bespectacled Mrs. Modesto (Sharon Madden), mother of seven, can barely keep up with the rest. She’s the least hungry to win, which becomes a telling ingredient in the final outcome. Most of all, it’s fascinating watching the macho men telling the “girls” they know what’s best for them.

One is the irritable stage manager (Gregory Itzin), a clod who won’t brook any interference. The other is Dudley (Freddy Applegate)--"the Dud” as Babs so fondly calls him--who is Dot’s sponsor/manager, or thinks he is.

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Perhaps it is no contest when it comes to the battle of the sexes in this play (a weakness, surely), but who comes out the actual winner in the end--surprise, surprise--tells us something about all competitions, while who comes out the figurative winner tells us all we need to know about who the real women are.

May and, especially, Smart are terrific, which takes nothing away from Krebs, Conroy and Madden, who play less flashy but not less subtle or significant roles.

Smart walks away with the show because she’s good and because Baizley has made Babs the flagship of modern feminism--a woman experiencing the painful ambiguities of being bright, lonely, daring, outspoken and, worst of all, unwilling to repress these attributes in a man’s world intent on making sure she doesn’t get away with flaunting them. So she drinks a little too much, flirts a little too much and shoots off her mouth like Old Faithful--regularly, for therapy.

Production values at the Coronet are simple, with Robert Blackman’s period costumes and a few humorous props (by set designer John Ivo Gilles) greatly enhancing this shrewd and funny little play. Warner Shook directed--briskly and with savvy galore.

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‘MRS. CALIFORNIA’ A play by Doris Baizley presented at the L.A. Public Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd. Producers Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, the L.A. Public Theatre, the L.A. Stage Co., in association with Leo Buscaglia, Lois Dupre, Barbara Slack and Charles Slack. Director Warner Shook. Scenery John Ivo Gilles. Lights Karen Marta Katz. Costumes Robert Blackman. Sound Susan Seamans. Stage manager Arthur Gaffin. Cast Fred Applegate, Frances Conroy, Gregory Itzin, Susan Krebs, Sharon Madden, Deborah May and Jean Smart. Performances Tuesdays through Fridays, 8:30 p.m.; Saturdays 5 and 8:30 p.m. (except Saturday when the show plays at 7 and 10 p.m.); Sundays 3 and 7:30 p.m. Runs indefinitely. (213) 659-6415.


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