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Happy Ending

String of Pearls dresses up TheatreWorks.

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I would have preferred to title this review "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pearl Necklace," but as fitting as that might be, it just wouldn't fit.

Michele Lowe's play String of Pearls, which explores notions of identity, sexuality, and beauty in a variety of women over a period of 50 years, can be described in one word: contrived. No, make that two words, because the play, which opened at TheatreWorks last weekend, is also a little bit icky. That's not to say that the writing isn't richly detailed. It is. The characters are engaging, the performances are top-notch, and there's probably an audience hungry to lap up the gooey, superficially literate theater Lowe is serving. But the old device Lowe uses in lieu of a plot creaks beneath the weight of its own preciousness. And one particularly demanding, if not completely incredible, plot twist transforms Lowe's quietly spoken monologues about a strand of pearls that is gifted, lost, found, swallowed, and passed around like a party joint into a full-fledged shaggy dog story. Or should I say big fish story? Or perhaps Lowe has single-handedly invented the shaggy fish story. It's hard to say.

Beth, whose story bookends the play, is a moderately free-spirited 73-year-old widow who is upset because she wants her granddaughter to be married in a string of pearls her husband bought 35 years ago, right before he died. Beth had since passed the pearls on to her daughter who also died, and now they are missing without a trace.

Before the pearls showed up, Beth's husband never gave her anything for no reason at all. And it seems unlikely he'd have changed had she not played the submissive role in a sexual act that is as potentially degrading as it is liberating.

After hearing that her husband once gave a string of pearls to a former girlfriend, Beth asks for a string of her own. Her husband happily complies by rolling her over on her back, placing his business between her bosoms, and decorating her neck with the glistening white globs euphemistically known to porn junkies everywhere as a pearl necklace.

Beth eventually ends up on the arm of the first 300-pound (and much younger) lesbian gravedigger to touch her breast (seriously). That's probably supposed to be empowering, but it seems more like an expression of identity than some admission that the poor woman has no personal identity and is always willing to submit to any breast fetishist who comes down the pike.

Emily Peckham makes Beth warm, funny, and not nearly as annoying as a wealthy housewife who is delighted that all the working-class friends she cultivates have a taste for Shakespeare and the arts might be. And she leads a thoroughly winning cast of four as they monologue across five decades and plow their way through dozens of characters. Teresa Willis, Maya Geri Robinson, and Claire Hayner do honest work, even if their characters are too much alike.

Director Jimmy LeDuc has proven time and again that he knows how to make great theater out of nothing at all, but for some reason he hasn't been able to recreate the kind of minimal magic that made his underfunded 2004 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch one of the more exciting local stage events of the past decade. In spite of some elegant and useful design work by Kerry Strahm and effective lighting by Beau Guedry, Pearls creeps along at a snail's pace with a handful of familiar tunes from the 1980s standing in the place of real transitions.

Beth's pearls travel around the world. They fall apart and are restrung. They pass through many hands and through the bowels of a fish. And on the eve of her granddaughter's wedding they are randomly returned to their original owner by that 300-pound lesbian gravedigger who happens to have bought them on the cheap. But this doesn't feel like a happy ending. It feels like a "happy ending." The sticky, icky kind.

String of Pearls at TheatreWorks through August 3rd

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