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THEATER REVIEW : ‘Suburban’ a Hip, ‘90s Take on Female Rites of Passage

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

“A marvelous new invention” is how the voice-over introduces Instant Girl, an acting, singing, dancing comedy troupe made up of three gamin females, Joanna Heimbold, Susan Trout and Janet Bogardus, who grew up together in Greenwich, Conn., and went on to do something about it. Instant Girl is not so much a new invention as a very hip take on old notions of Girldom--think Natalie Wood, Paula Prentiss, Marlo Thomas and other prototypal, spunky ideals of American Womanhood from a time when it was still permissible to think women were really cute when they talked about feminism.

Playing the small stages of New York, Instant Girl caught the hearts of film producers Mace Neufeld and Bob Rehme, inspiring the men to produce their first stage show together, which is now at the Actors’ Gang in Hollywood.

“Instant Girl in Suburban Tango” is the name of the show, a story of female rites of passage told in happily amateurish (or, at best, semi-pro) song and dance. The troupe smartly appropriates images of what it was to be female in the ‘50s and ‘60s and mixes them up with a ‘90s energy. They begin in pigtails, playing make-believe (“Our mother is liquored up, so of course we live in a dream world,” says one), and they soon graduate to sneaking cigarettes, waiting for men to call, and marriage, which is happy only when it is shiny and new. Otherwise, they would have to become Instant Woman, and that would not be as light and charming.

Their charm may be stronger than their material per se, but Instant Girl effortlessly transforms attractive and unattractive cliches into chic sport. For instance, the women soon grow sour on their husbands. Their idea of a great remedy: get liquored up, take a nap and then be fresh again by 5, when the husbands come home. They go to a liquor store, where each one of them has already exhausted her credit, and try to talk the suspicious proprietor into giving them lots of liquor (for the 14 people they’re supposed to be having over for lunch in a couple of minutes). They’re not trying to be adorable, but they are.

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Under Ned Eisenberg’s direction, they also make desperation attractive, such as when they sing the ultimate feminine begging song “Let It Please Be Him,” with phones inside the pockets of their housedresses. And they similarly expose the narrow glamour margin in the fan dance when they perform to Puccini dressed only in panties and pasties and a big feather like Gypsy Rose Lee would use, only they keep crashing into each other.

After a while it’s clear that the members of this threesome are not equally charismatic. Bogardus plays the sweet one, most eager to please, with gently lesbian tendencies. Trout is the tall one, a no-nonsense kind of Roz Russell gal. But the eye is drawn again and again to Heimbold, who manages to combine the magic of the young Genevieve Bujold along with Natalie Wood and other quintessential girls of the past into a bewitching new package. She conjures up an archetypal girl, a person whose beauty cannot be diminished by whatever ungraceful mess she gets herself into. That, perhaps, is the real meaning behind the image Instant Girl is glorifying--a person so young and fresh and natural that she can do no wrong at all. And who wouldn’t want to be her?

* “Instant Girl in Suburban Tango,” Actors’ Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 3. $17.50-$20. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour.


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