30ish best friends Billie, Rhonda Louise, and Judy have gotten together at Rhonda Louise’s beautiful Manhattan apartment for girls’ night.  When Billie wonders out loud where the men are, Rhonda reminds her that Billie had said precisely not to invite any men, the whole point of the evening being that “the three of us would just deck out and look great for each other and fuck the men.” “But don’t you feel we’re wasting our gorgeousness on each other?” asks Billie.

Sound like an episode of Sex And The City minus one? Though Billie and her bosom buddies predate Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda by over 10 years in John Patrick Shanley’s 1986 comedy Women Of Manhattan, now part of 68 Cent Theatre Company’s 13 By Shanley festival, the comparison is a fair one.

Glamorous Billie (Cassie Cherney), the only married one of the three, seems frustrated in her marriage.  Bob, her husband of three years just recently proposed to her because “he forgot (having done it before).  It’s the courtship. He can’t give it up.”  Country girl Rhonda (Kimberly Chillous) has recently broken up with boyfriend Jerry. Not simply broken up with him. She threw the bum out, “showed him the door.” All that’s left of Jerry are his red Converse sneakers, which remain on Rhonda’s floor because a) they still contain his smell, which she misses and b) they’re too nice to throw out—and certainly not because she still loves him. Tough as nails Judy (Heidi Fielek) wears “man-tailored” suits and complains that the men she meets “are all faggots,” or use their dates with her as a catalyst for coming out.

Billie and Rhonda decide that what Judy needs is a blind date with a man that Billie has hand picked for her.  “All I ask,” says Billie, “is when you meet this guy, that you’re as open with him, with your heart and your mind, as you know how to be.”

Women Of Manhattan puts off Judy’s blind date until the third of its four scenes, preceding it with one featuring Billie and husband Bob (Ben Scharlin) barbecuing hamburgers on the balcony of their co-op. Whereas the scene between the three women was quirkily comedic, scene two ends up staid and introspective by comparison. It’s primarily Bob talking about life, his life, his and Billie’s life together—all the while making “a ballet out of cooking the hamburgers.”

In Scene Three, Judy does get her blind date—with a man named Duke (Jonté LéGras), a handsome black man who smokes a pipe (which Judy believes must mean that he’s hiding something) and talks like Robert Wagner. Also a bit off-putting is Duke’s closer-than-expected connection to very married Billie. Fortunately, Duke assures Judy in no uncertain terms that he is 100% heterosexual, not just everyday straight, but the kind of man who’d respond to another man’s putting his hand on his leg by punching him in the mouth.  

The final scene reunites the four women, with Rhonda Louise the only one still without a man in her life, but perhaps the wisest of them all.

Like even the most linear and straightforward of Shanley’s other pre-Doubt plays, Women Of Manhattan tends to have an artificial quality to it. Do people really say things like “You look like a firefly in a nightclub” or “These clothes evolved out of situations where observations were made about which kind of garments are effective to wear to attract the male of the species”?  In the second scene particularly, it’s hard to imagine anyone’s husband saying, as Bob does, “I summon the usual goblins and I invite them to torment me with their little worryforks.”

For Women Of Manhattan to overcome this artificiality, it needs some darn good actors, and in this respect, fortunately, 68 Cent’s production comes up a winner.

Chillous is a delightfully homespun Rhonda, a charming blend of weariness and optimism.  Cherney brings glamour and sexiness to Billie, whose tell-it-like-it-is frankness hides her lack of sexual and marital fulfillment.  Fielek is a real firecracker as Judy, who uses bravado and wisecracks to keep men at arm’s length.  Broodingly handsome Scharlin does very well with the difficult role of Bob, who finally lets out some of the secrets feelings he’s kept inside him. LéGras’s Duke brings a break of fresh air to Women Of Manhattan following the preceding, rather downbeat scene, and has great chemistry with Fielek.

Maggie Grant’s snappy direction brings much brightness to the proceedings, and she’s made sure that her three leads really “get” their characters.  (The trio have gone out together in character, even watched the SAG Awards as Rhonda Louise, and Judy, and it shows.)

As with all of the 13 By Shanley plays, set design (by Danny Cistone) is simple but first rate, given the need for dozens of set and scene changes in the festival’s seven different programs.  Neda Pourang’s costumes have obviously been carefully selected with the three women’s very different personalities in mind.  (Judy’s mannish suit and 180 degree turn fairy-tale evening gown are a special treat.)

Though Women Of Manhattan is not the strongest of the seven full-length Shanleys on parade at Theatre 68, it nonetheless proves to be an enjoyable precursor to the HBO-Sarah Jessica Parker hit and an entertaining afternoon of theater which Sex And The City fans will enjoy while awaiting the movie’s sequel.

Note: Due to illness, the one-act Let Us Go Out Into The Starry Night, which usually precedes Women Of Manhattan, was replaced on April 4 by Welcome To The Moon.

Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
April 4, 2011

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