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Ephron sisters weave clothes into the fabric of women’s lives

Lo these many years later, Delia Ephron still pines for her first love.

It was a black double-breasted tweed coat with a red lining from Saks Fifth Avenue, a ladylike princess coat that set her apart from all those dreary college kids in polo coats. Her older sister, Nora Ephron, who was already living in New York, had helped Delia make the transition from Los Angeles to Connecticut College by taking her shopping for the first tangible evidence that her life had changed — a winter coat.

“My mother wasn’t there, so Nora’s job wasn’t only to take care of me but to outfit me,” Delia recalls. “We went to Saks, and I remember it was when they used to parade clothes. I got the greatest coat, I will never forget it. I wish I had that coat and I don’t know what happened to it.”

Nora chimes in: “It was when our friendship as adults began, when we were both away from home.”

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When is a coat not a coat? When it turns into a memory. Such telling details of women’s lives, recollections triggered by items of clothing, are stitched together by the famously funny Ephrons in “Love, Loss, and What I Wore.” Their off-Broadway hit, which is still going strong after clocking some 250 performances in New York, runs through July 4 at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.

A rotating cast of five actresses reading from scripts on music stands brings to life the hilarious and poignant stories of Ilene Beckerman, author of 1995’s bestseller of the same name, and women interviewed by the Ephrons, including Rosie O’Donnell, who’s in the New York company. Most of the actors opening the L.A. run through June 6, under the direction of Jenny Sullivan — Rita Wilson, Carol Kane, Tracy Ellis Ross and Natasha Lyonne — are also veterans of the New York production. Rounding out the Geffen cast is stage and film trouper Caroline Aaron, who has appeared in several Ephron movies, including “Sleepless in Seattle.” (The following month’s cast includes mother-daughter actresses Rhea Perlman and Lucy DeVito, “Two and a Half Men’s” Conchata Ferrell and two more to be announced.)

“Sleepless” is one of seven films the New York-based sisters have made together, wearing various hats, director (Nora), producer (Delia) and/or writer (both). Their successful work partnership, perhaps as difficult to achieve as a happy marriage, reflects a certain shared, and bankable, sensibility.

“I think the world is full of collaborators who have fallen out with one another,” Nora says. “One of the reasons we have been lucky is we’re friends in real life.”

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Delia agrees. “We think each other is funny. We’ve always been together in some way. And also, remember our parents were collaborators, so we had a model.”

“Well, we had a terrible model,” Nora says. They grew up in Los Angeles with screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron (“Desk Set,” among other movies), who suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, respectively, later in life. Younger sisters Amy and Hallie are novelists and journalists.

At the moment, Nora and Delia, who is three years younger, are perched on armchairs in the Geffen’s donor lounge. If they hadn’t just been talking about their shared sensibility, any observer would have noticed it anyway — because of their clothes, of course. Both women, slender and petite with a tousled shock of hair the color of walnuts, are similarly dressed in unconstructed black jackets, tops and pants.

“I think we’re both wearing Issey Miyake,” Nora says. “Aren’t we, some version of it?”

Delia points to her leather pants. “This is the Row. That’s the Olsen twins. People ask me if I buy them because I like sisters so much. I buy them because I think they make really nice black clothes.”

Scoring pieces in slimming black is one of the topics that bedevil women’s shopping lives, like finding clothes that fit and parrying critiques from Mom. Group meditations on such sartorial obsessions — called “clotheslines” — string together the stories of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” about such unforgettable moments as a lesbian marriage and a bout with breast cancer and reconstruction, softened by the anticipation of sporting a pretty underwire bra.

Anchoring the 100-minute show is Gingy, a.k.a. Beckerman, whose illustrated memoir touched off the entire enterprise after her publisher sent the manuscript to Nora in the hope of scoring an introduction.

“I got to about page nine and practically burst into tears,” Nora says. “It’s about the moment when her mother died. And I thought it was the most brilliant autobiographical device to tell your life through your clothes. Because we can all do it. And the thing that was so amazing when you read the book was that you were writing a parallel autobiography. It was about her, and it was immediately about you without there being the remotest overlap in clothing or actual life itself.”

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Not long after, Nora wrote a witty piece for Harper’s Bazaar about hating her purse (eventually collected in her 2006 bestseller, “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts About Being a Woman”). Bette Midler did a staged reading of the essay at a benefit.

“I heard it out loud, and it worked,” Nora says. “So I said to Delia, ‘You know we could take this, and if we did it right, it would have the same interactive magical thing that it has as a book. And we could do it in a kind of fourth cousin to ‘The Vagina Monologues.’ ”

The sisters optioned the book and then e-mailed and interviewed their friends and their friends about clothing they had obsessed over and acid comments their mothers made about them. Women wrote back and the Ephrons began to shape their stories into a play.

The most common refrain from the women was maternal feedback.

“That’s the most universal thing,” Delia says. “Nora says that [clothing] is one of the first things you choose as a child. You can’t choose where you eat.”

Nora: “Or where you go to school.”

Delia: “But you get to choose your clothes. And there it becomes something that mothers and daughters do together. They shop together.”

Nora: “And they fight about clothes.”

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Delia: “And separation from the mother takes place over the argument. It’s really an important thing in the whole relationship to your mother.”

The Ephrons workshopped the incipient play in New York, but they were unhappy with the results so they put it away for a while. Then Karen Carpenter, an award-winning former associate artistic director of the Old Globe, suggested mounting it for one evening at a theater in East Hampton. “That was two summers ago, and it was clearly something,” Nora says.

That led to more reshaping and a sold-out, seven-week run Monday nights in a downtown theater, benefiting Dress for Success, a nonprofit group that gives economically disadvantaged women professional attire and strategies to help them find work. Last October, the show opened at the Westside Theatre to enthusiastic reviews, and plans are afoot for productions in Mexico City, Paris and Toronto.

But the first stop is Los Angeles, largely because of a campaign waged by Geffen veteran Rita Wilson, a recurring member of the New York cast.

“People love this sort of stuff,” she says. “This is the perfect theater and the perfect city for people who love clothes, right? I knew that it would do well here and have the right vibe here.”

Onstage, all the actors are clad in black, not just because black is, well, black, but also because one thing the play isn’t about is fashion.

Says Nora: “Fashion and clothes are not the same thing. Ninety-nine percent of people in America, what they wear is whatever uniform they wear, and it simply doesn’t matter that X or Y has happened in terms of fashion.... [The play] isn’t really about clothes or fashion. It’s about women’s lives.”

calendar@latimes.com


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