by Chris Davis
And when I think of yearbooks I think of the words, “Never Change” scrawled in big loopy letters. Seems like every other inscription in my senior yearbook said something like that: "Stay like you are and you'll go far." But was all of this a blessing or a curse? Even as a regular Clearasil user I never knew. And as time kept on slipping (x 3) into the future I knew less and less. Because most people didn’t seem to change much, really. They ripen and become more articulated. But changelessness seemed as inescapable as productions of Vanities in the 1970's and '80's.
In the late 1970’s Vanities, an unassuming three act play about three cheerleaders (I’m hesitent to actually call them friends), growing up, going to college, and eventually moving away, was the most frequently produced play in America. The original New York production showcased the talents of an unknown girl from Memphis named Kathy Bates and ran for 4-years. In 1981 HBO filmed a version of the play with Annette O’Toole, Meredith Baxter Birney, and Shelly Hack. This televised version was my first brush with the play. And being in that hormonal stage where every relationship is absurdly intense, I watched it over and over again loving it more each time. I never wanted it to change, and it didn’t. And over time — and not all that much time, really — I got tired of it. Maybe I even started to despise it like Mary, the play’s worldly cheerleader turned erotic art peddler, grows to despise the provincial attitudes of her high school associates. It just seemed too damn easy to do. And something that accessible couldn't possibly be worth doing, could it?
Vanities seemed like a strange choice for the New Moon theatre company, a growing indie that’s built a solid reputation by staging American classics and headier European works that have fallen between the cracks or out of the regional repertoire. Still, I was happy to revisit this once-popular show after all these years of writing it off as Lifetime bait waiting for its inevitable musical reincarnation. And even happier to discover that I may have underestimated this play about popularity and pointless living. It almost makes sense as a follow up to last season’s excellent Death of a Salesman.
Vanities may not be in the same league as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, but there’s something undeniably real and powerfully archetypical about these three mean girls who go through changes, but never really change. And if New Moon’s production doesn’t quite give them the pep rally they deserve, it gives them life enough.
You know the old cliche about history repeating for those who don’t learn their history? The cheerleaders of Vanities hear about the assassination of JFK and immediately worry about how it might impact their plans for the big high school football game. Is it any wonder that they only experience the political and cultural upheaval of the 60's and 70's in purely aesthetic terms: Real hippies smell, but the hip, happening sounds of Broadway’s Hair is the winning ticket for sorority all-sing.
Liberated women aren’t defined by men, but the three vanities are of an older order. They are the college-educated harem girls for a new kind of American Sultan. So one's burned a bra: Helluva striptease show.
The acting is low key, and a little cinematic. Every character could be more crisply rendered, every scene infused with more life. In act three especially, when nobody has anything left in common — Nothing they can talk about anyway — we need to see why these women need one another. The conflict is spelled out in the dialogue. The fun comes from watching them affirm one another while fighting, sometimes wickedly, for a better piece of the same neon tiara.
Emily Burnette takes on Joanne, the incurious breeder of the bunch who only wants to marry a rich man, make babies, and drink away the details. She does that exactly. And she says things like “I’d just die,” so often you start to wish she’d get on with it. Lauren Malone’s Kathy is an obsessive organizer, and a little on the mousey side. Heather Malone is too openly contemptuous of Joanne too soon, but when her Mary isn’t only glowering, she’s a lot of fun to watch.
I’ve always imagined there’s a lost fourth act to Vanities, where all the loose threads are neatly tied up. It seems like it should be the kind of play that ends with a big group hug. But instead there’s only innuendo and uncertainty, and the play is better for it. Will Mary find fullfillment selling erotic neon and sleeping with married men or will she settle down, find Christ and breed like Joanne? Will Kathy ever know what she wants to do with her life? Will the philandering husband Joanne can never leave turn out to be John Edwards? Will there ever be a time when the play's comments about abortion don’t sound absolutely current?
The genius of Vanities is that it seems so insubstantial but it sticks with you. Like all that baggage spelled out in cryptic cliches in your senior yearbook.
Vanities, written by Jack Heifner. June 22 - July 1, 2012. Theatreworks. Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. 15.00 Adults, $12.00 Seniors, Students & Military. 901-484-3467, www.newmoontheatre.org