Frances Fisher gives the finest comedic performance by an actress you’re likely
to see all year and Paul Ben-Victor is her magnificent partner in laughter, rage,
tears, and romance in Michele Riml’s hilarious, moving, and very real Sexy
Laundry, now playing at the historic Hayworth Theatre. How’s that for a
reason to go see a play instead of staying home and watching TV?

Fisher and Ben-Victor are Alice and Henry, married 25 years with three children
(two grown, one still a teen), who’ve checked into the lavish “L” Hotel in an
attempt to spice up their marriage.  As might be imagined, it’s mostly Alice’s
idea and one she seems quite happy with, especially with hubby giving her a
relaxing massage at curtain up—as Alice reads to him from Sex For Dummies. 
After a slap on the back and a hearty “Are you relaxed?” Henry asks Alice to
return the favor and she balks.  She’s relaxed now and giving Henry a massage
would mean getting tense once again. Good wife that she is, though, Alice
ends up giving in, and we get our first glimpse of the wonderful physical
comedienne that Fisher is as she attempts to maintain her state of relaxation
by “massaging” Henry with just the tippy-tips of her fingers.  In this, and many
other moments, it is clear why Fisher was cast as Lucille Ball in the 1991 TV
movie Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter.

Just as “Lucy” was never the same again without her comic foil “Ricky,” so
Fisher and Ben-Victor make a dream team, the chemistry between them
electric, each feeding, and feeding off, the other and never descending into
sitcom territory, even in the play’s most slapstick moments.

Ben-Victor (outstanding in The Good Steno) is as schlumpy as a lumpy,
comfortable blanket opposite Fisher’s refined glamour (Helen Mirren as
comedienne), and playwright Riml has the male/female husband/wife
dynamic down pat.  Alice knows exactly when the last time was that they
had sex; Henry has no idea.  She wants to cuddle and talk; he just wants to
watch the news on CNN. She is trying to reconnect with Henry to find what
they lost; he didn’t even realize that they’d lost anything.

Riml has loads of fun with Alice and Henry’s exploration of various sex
techniques described in the Dummies book.  Alice wants them to “personalize”
their private parts by giving them nicknames.  Then they can “work the name
into a conversation at a party to titillate your partner.” She suggests “Frank”
for Henry’s thingy.  He much prefers “Caesar.”

Alice and Henry then share fantasies.  (It’s her idea, naturally, with Henry a
somewhat unwilling participant.) She imagines herself all hot and sexy in black
leather, and a size 6. No, make that a 2. It’s her fantasy after all, and one
which climaxes (pun intended) with Fisher faking an orgasm to rival Meg  
Ryan’s in When Harry Met Sally.  Henry’s fantasy (which he has entitled “My
Fantasy by Henry Lane”) is to be successful and rich, with a wife who welcomes
him home without sadness or rage. Alice would like flowers from Henry at least
once in a while. Henry wonders why he should spend 50 bucks for flowers when
they just die. “Well, I spent the last 25 years with you and you’re going to die,”
counters Alice.

It would have been easy for lesser actors to play just the surface of Riml’s script,
but there is depth to her writing, and both Fisher and Ben-Victor glide
effortlessly from serious to comedic to serious again. Fisher especially can be
hilarious one moment, crying real tears the next, and be back to funny without
a seam in sight. Riml has given Alice a monolog in which she recounts a
traumatic “gym experience” which provides Fisher with the kind of scene that
wins Best Actress awards.  Fisher reenacts Alice’s comfortable treadmill jog at
Level 1 (with the red dots flatlining) as Alice slowly becomes aware that a pair
of hot young things on either side of her are loping up hills and down valleys at
Level 15 intensity.  The actress moves effortlessly from slapstick to tears and
back again, hilarious and painfully real in a scene that could so easily have
been played “just for laughs.”

Ben-Victor’s Henry, as might be expected, doesn’t get to play the extremes
that Fisher’s role entails, but his is a masterful performance as well.  Watch
Henry’s face when Alice, smarting about an inadvertent remark Henry has
made re her “fleshy” tummy (which he likes), asks him point blank, “Which
would you rather have me be, thin or fat?” and Henry struggles to come up
with an answer.  Listen to Ben-Victor’s phone rant to the hotel manager about
the “thin towels” in the bathroom. Watch him as he tries to make the perfect
romantic room service order, until he hears how much the champagne will
cost him.  This is a consummate actor and comedian in a role which allows him
to be both.

As Riml’s script probes Henry’s desire for a marriage that’s comfortable “like a
recliner” and Alice’s wish for excitement, we are taken on a roller coaster ride
of emotions, and as brilliant as the two stars are, surely they must owe much to
director Gary Blumsack, under whose skilled guidance they manage to make
us laugh and cry and ache for them at the same time.

This is truly a class A production in every respect, with master designer Joel
Daavid’s set and lighting deserving special mention. Daavid has created an
elegant hotel room in rich blues and golds complete with crystal chandelier,
and his lighting does much to emphasize the mood of each scene, subtly
dimming for intimate or introspective moments, then brightening up once
again as things become more comedic. Christopher Game’s sound design
incorporates just the right mood music, including a funny (and ear-splittingly
loud) hard rock segment and another set to The Trogg’s “Wild Thing.” Traci
McWain has designed just the right costumes for this weekend getaway.

Sexy Laundry has been playing for a month now, and the perfection which
comes with practice is evident.  The show is scheduled to close in about a
week, so reserve your seats now! You’ll be sorry if you miss this very funny and
perceptive play and its two oh so stellar stars at the peak of their craft.

The Hayworth, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
March 6, 2008
Photos: Eric Curtis

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