STAGE REVIEW : 'Ladies' Room' Lives Up to Expectations of Racy Domain

Times Theater Writer

Set a play in a "Ladies' Room" and what do you get? A female counterpart to jock locker-room humor. That doesn't mean ladies'-room jokes can't be funny. They can. But it also means they're going to be racy, rowdy and trashy.

In all those respects, Robin Schiff's "Ladies' Room" at the Tiffany lives up to expectations.

It is, however, also well observed, well staged and well acted.

Slick? As an icy street. But director Kim Friedman has picked a strong company peppered with Groundlings (or former Groundlings) who know how to navigate this sort of broad, unabashedly commercial sitcomedy. And while the text never rises much above the toilet bowl waterline (and often plummets beneath it), it is good-humored enough to remain relatively inoffensive.

(Offensive, after all, lies in the ear of the listener and listeners vary from one to the next.)

What could possibly happen in the ladies' room at the Green Enchilada, a Mexican restaurant where everything indicates that the green might stand for the color customers turn after eating the food or drinking the margaritas? Plenty. But the passing parade of females waltzing in and out of there (Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio did the fanciful set) seems to be thirsting and hungering mostly after men.

They range from the middle-brow women from the ad agency a few suicidal floors up to a pair of totally awesome Valley girls (Christie Mellor and Lisa Kudrow), vapidly looking for guys with good jobs (it makes them sexier), to three waitresses who come through decorated like Christmas trees in chili peppers, mini-sombreros, six-shooters and Mexican skirts. (Susan Nininger did the ironic costumes.)

One waitress is a simpering anorexic (Cynthia Stevenson), another a bulldozer (Kate Benton) who will shoot anyone dead with an utterance, and the third is a liberated Latina (Bridget Sienna) who will call her husband between orders to give him some telephone sex and inquire after the baby.

The main focus, though, is on the ad agency gals: the untrustworthy office queen of trash Kathleen (Carol Ann Susi), the newly promoted VP Liz (Talia Balsam) and the bimbo secretary Ellen (Nana Visitor), who gave up a career as a Playboy bunny to move up to typing somebody else's ad copy.

Things get as hot as the waitresses' jalapenos when Liz discovers that the junior executive she's after (Larry Poindexter in a thankless role) may be having an affair with Ellen. Things get hotter still when the unbridled Kathleen puts the guy on the hot seat--a position absolutely guaranteed to compromise everyone.

Enough plot. Schiff manages those central strands of story more skillfully than she does the largely unmotivated entrances and exits of loudmouth Sharisse (Benton), mealy-mouthed Gigi (Stevenson) and fulsome-mouthed Carmen (Sienna). To say nothing of the Valley girls, who are strictly comic relief from . . . more comic relief.

This is pure sitcom Never-Neverland. Susi and Visitor give burnished performances of fundamentally very sad women, but gags like "I just finished (reading) Genesis; now I'm starting Episiotomy," are orphaned one-liners that should go down in infancy, having nothing to do with character and everything to do with being independently funny for about 15 seconds.

As for lines such as "I haven't seen you so happy since BMW came out with a convertible," they're great for zeroing in on locale: the material girl middle of Southern California. (Where else?)

Concealed in the raunch and the piffle are a few mordant (and troubling) observations about feminist life in the '80s. Are women still really that insecure? Probably, but "Ladies' Room" is featherweight stuff that, under Friedman's smart direction, speeds by so fast that you don't start asking those tough questions until after you get home.

At 8532 Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7 and 10 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Until Oct. 31. Tickets: $15-$18; (213) 652-6165.

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