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THEATER REVIEW : A Search for Truth in Beauty : ‘The Waiting Room’ Takes a Disturbing Look at Society’s View of Attractiveness

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

In “The Waiting Room,” Lisa Loomer’s fascinating new play at the Mark Taper Forum, three women await medical attention in a sleek modern office where time has been erased. There’s Forgiveness From Heaven, a Chinese woman whose toe has fallen off due to a foot binding; Victoria, a corseted Victorian seeking ovariotomy to cure a disease called hysteria; and Wanda, a sassy blonde party girl with the timing of a stand-up comic and industrial-size breasts, thanks to the magic of silicone. Wanda’s implants need adjustment.

Part activist, part sitcom writer, Loomer creates a recognizable world that nevertheless defies rational explanation in this smart and disturbing comedy. Why would different cultures eroticize the hobbling of women or the corseting of women? And why would our culture instill impossible standards of beauty that keep women in a lifelong state of inadequacy?

As a society we now have some understanding of the economic and hierarchical forces that drive this engine, thanks to writers from Thorstein Veblen to Naomi Wolf. Loomer reminds us of our own, current, neatly accepted explanations--at one point, an angry woman at a bar spews the familiar anti-male diatribe, which everyone totally ignores--and then the playwright asks us to look again at what we do to ourselves without thinking. Loomer provides a new lens on the subject through her great gift for absurdist humor, even as she shifts the burden of evil from men in general to a male-dominated medical and pharmaceutical industry. And although she is capable of lecturing, Loomer is never shrill.

Of course, each of the characters is horrified by the other’s cultural practices, and each finds her own as natural as breathing, as do the men who help perpetrate them. A Victorian husband (Simon Templeman) believes that ovariotomy will cure his high-strung wife, whose desire to learn Greek is considered one of her symptoms. But when he tells her, “I would never let anyone hurt you,” he means it with all his heart.

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In the play’s most riveting scene, a brilliant ode to the line between pleasure and pain, Forgiveness (June Kyoko Lu) receives her husband (Jim Ishida) after a trip from which he’s brought her silks, spices, his new 11-year-old wife for her to hobble and, most important of all, opium. He unwraps her feet--which stink so from infection that they cause a servant to hurl in the next room--as if they were the key to every human erotic impulse. Forgiveness, too, is in raptures. Here Loomer the playwright takes over completely from Loomer the thinker, and the characters’ motivations escape irresistibly into the mystery of sexuality.

Wanda is perhaps the most disturbing character of all. In a stunning performance by Jacalyn O’Shaughnessy, this is a Holly Golightly who’s had her cheeks done, as well as her nose, her jaw and her breasts (three times), and yet who has some basic grasp of feminist thinking. Wanda has as much will to stop herself from the surgical pursuit of beauty as most women have to stop applying makeup in the morning. The line between pleasing the opposite sex and pleasing ourselves is as difficult to distinguish as the toxins in the air we breathe, and about as dangerous. Still.

*

Both Anne Militello’s lighting and Mark Wendland’s antiseptic set manage to be witty; they create a world where doctors’ diplomas are eerily lit from within, and shiny white surfaces can transform from a Chinese love nest to a steam bath to a hospital room. David Schweizer directs with equal parts energy and brains, compassion and humor. He gets terrific performances all around; even in the non-speaking roles (Jason Reed is a hilarious dancing orderly).

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A Buck Henry look-alike, Robert Picardo progresses impressively from just another callous doctor to one who faces his complicity in an American industry that prizes profits over health. Kurt Fuller is funny as a businessman with ties to the pharmaceutical industry and whose “listening exercises” can’t disguise that he’s a complete pig; Tony Simotes is a moronic FDA agent who looks up to him.

The women plunge into their roles to dismantle any cliches we might attach to their characters. Lela Ivey has a wonderful Billie Burke-ish vocal edge as the nervous Victoria, and a peculiar spasm every time she mentions the word husband . I could not stop watching June Kyoko Lu as Forgiveness, particularly when her insane subservience breaks into fury at the David Letterman show for not doing “Stupid Pet Tricks.” Leah Maddrie plays a number of roles well, including the nurse Brenda, Loomer’s mouthpiece for statistics and for a direct indictment of the American medical industry that the play probably could have done without. But even in such scenes, Loomer’s passion abounds.

Once she is shorn of her ornamentation, Wanda finally assimilates the truth about herself and her culture that she suspected all along. Looking at a book of fairy tales, she concludes: “If you’re old and ugly, you’re screwed.” When she and Loomer take a moment to envision the possibility that it could all be otherwise, “The Waiting Room” glows with that possibility. And it’s Loomer’s gift that she elucidates just what women really are waiting for--a beautiful sense of self that has nothing to do with magazine ads and is something no surgeon can remove.

* “The Waiting Room,” Mark Taper Forum, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m., Sunday , 7:30. Ends Sept . 25. $28-$35. (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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June Kyoko Lu: Forgiveness From Heaven

Lela Ivey: Victoria

Leah Maddrie: Brenda

Jacalyn O’Shaughnessy: Wanda

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Robert Picardo: Douglas

Simon Templeman: Oliver

Tony Simotes: Ken

Kurt Fuller: Larry

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Jim Ishida: Blessing From Heaven

Brian Brophy: Orderly

Ken Narasaki: Orderly

Jason Reed: Orderly

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A Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County and Mark Taper Forum production. By Lisa Loomer. Directed by David Schweizer. Sets by Mark Wendland. Costumes by Deborah Nadoolman. Lighting by Anne Militello. Sound by Jon Gottlieb and Mitchell Greenhill. Music by Mitchell Greenhill. Production stage manager Mary Michele Miner.


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