Kim Justis and Jenny Odle have their act together. They would like to take it on the road someday soon.
"Your article could help get us an agent," Jenny says, fussing with her long, enviously thick mane of dark blond hair. "You could say how incredible we are and make us sound really smart." She crinkles up her nose, shoves her face into the dressing room mirror, pulls the lower lid of her left eye down just about as far as a lower lid will pull without detaching, and begins to probe for stray lashes with her index finger.
"Yes, make us sound really smart," Kim chimes in. "That's a really good idea, Jenny." Kim, significantly shorter and darker than her statuesque acting partner, is piddling with her own shorter, darker hair, twisting it into a tight corkscrew, then clamping it in place with some dangerous-looking variation on the dreaded banana clip, only to unclip it a moment later and clip it again. "You can say a bunch of things and make us sound very in-tuh-leck-shool."
The two actresses have come together to recreate their award-winning performances in Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney's HBO phenomenon Parallel Lives, a series of wildly comic sketches about everything from death to dating that requires each actress to morph into some 30-odd characters. Emphasis on "odd." Equal emphasis on "characters." Unlike most of the feminist theater and performance art that emerged in the overly serious Eighties -- grueling anatomical laundry lists and overwrought declarations of independence -- Parallel Lives is about characters, not causes. Punch lines replace platitudes, and the result is pure comic catharsis. It's smart without being even the teeniest bit pretentious. It's entertaining but never frothy, shot through with powerful moments when the comedy sneaks ever so quietly off stage, leaving devastatingly accurate introspection all alone in the spotlight. Only the rarest of performers are capable of taking on a show like Parallel Lives with any hope of success.
Fiercely smart, disarmingly casual, and disgustingly talented, these actresses are a perfect fit. But this is no great revelation. If you saw the first production of Parallel Lives, a show that shattered box-office records for Theatre Memphis' Little Theatre, you know this. If you have ever seen one of their infamous cabaret shows you know this all too well. Though the sky-scraping blond and the diminutive brunette could not be more physically dissimilar, they work together like a set of identical twins. They are the very definition of chemistry. Backstage they finish each other's sentences.
On opening night an admirer sends them both bud vases full of black-eyed Susans. For these two, the offering seems far more appropriate than the more traditional and certainly more precious gift of roses. The house manager delivers the wildflowers, winking, "You both look vurry, vurry purdy t'night." Director Ann Marie Hall enters with more opening-night gifts. She too notes that the girls look "vurry, vurry purdy t'night." Others enter and exit the dressing room, each repeating the slurred compliment with Stepfordian precision. It is of course a line from the show's most memorable piece, and Kim Justis, topped with a cowboy hat, sucking on a Marlboro and a Lone Star, delivers it so perfectly that there is no way to avoid getting it stuck in your head. But with frequent, less studied repetition the phrase seems to stale.
"Don't you guys get tired of hearing that?"
"Hearing what?" Kim asks. I've been trapped by a master trapper. Now I have to say it too. So I do, and the pair answer in unison with a resounding, and certainly not surprising, "No, nope, unh-uh, never get tired of hearing that." "It's always such a surprise," Kim adds.
"One time when I was at Circuit Playhouse, Grayson Smith -- the guy who cleans carpets for all of the theaters -- he made me this paper flower. And he gave it to me and said, 'You look vurry, vurry purdy t'night.' You can't ever get tired of something like that."
The bigger question, however, is will Memphis audiences get tired of Parallel Lives? It's scarcely been a year-and-a-half since the show was last performed here and nearly 10 years after its multiple ACE Award-winning debut on HBO, and the original cast production frequently shows up in the TV Guide listings. This doesn't seem to bother the girls at all.
"We really know these characters now," Jenny says. "People are always coming up and saying things like, 'I saw this show on HBO and liked you guys so much better,' or 'It was so different.' Now there are so many new textures, so many deeper things happening."
Not content to merely revive Parallel Lives again and again, Jenny and Kim have begun to work with a screenwriter friend in L.A. in order to develop an original script custom-tailored for their unique talents. They aren't ready to dispense the details just yet, but they did hint that it might all take place in a bathroom. A vurry, vurry purdy bathroom, no doubt.
Parallel Lives is in the Little Theatre at Theatre Memphis through August 19th.