What screenwriter/playwright/director Roger Kumble did to wealthy New York teens in the movie Cruel Intentions, he does now to four (Very) Real Housewives Of Bel Air in the hilariously venomous Girls Talk, a World Premiere production at the Lee Strasberg Theater.

Housewife Number One, screenwriter-turned-fulltime-mom Lori (Brooke Shields), is first seen pumping breast milk for her newborn twins while four-year-old Emily spends the day on a playdate with Suri Cruise at “The Center,” presumably West Hollywood’s very real Center For Early Education.

Next up is Claire (Constance Zimmer), Lori’s former screenwriting partner and (if we’re nitpicking) not a Housewife per se, the still single 39-year-old having little desire to opt for anything other than her high-powered career despite a fast-ticking biological clock.

Number Three is Scarlett (Nicole Paggi), the sole shiksa of the bunch, a Southern-born sweetheart soon to convert to hubby’s religion and ever eager to demonstrate her Jew-friendliness with an enthusiastic “Shabbat Shalom, y’all!”

Fourth to appear is Jane (Andrea Bendewald), aka Internet superstar “Mommie Maven,” arriving infant-in-sling at Lori’s house with no second thought about changing baby’s poopy diapers on her hostess’s living room carpet, a woman perfectly capable of accidentally leaving said baby behind when Maven duty calls.

Completing the Girls Talk quintet (though quite definitely not a part of their social circle) is Zusa (Scenie winner Eileen Galindo), Lori’s temporary maid till full-timer Blanca returns from a trip back to El Salvador. Despite her eager attempts at English as a second language, Zusa still hasn’t mastered the difference between a ringing phone and a beeping intercom.

Girls Talk remains resolutely comedic during its first half, with witty zingers like the women’s response to unworldly Scarlett’s clueless “Where’s Persia?” Answer: “It used to be in the Middle East but now it’s somewhere between Doheny and Beverly Glen.” Jokes about AT&T’s spotty coverage abound, amongst other one-liners flung rapid-fire, most of them hitting their funny-bone mark.

As the girls of Girls Talk talk, it soon becomes clear that Lori’s attitude towards being one of the few mommies of her social circle without a full-time nanny is at best an ambivalent one. Thus it comes as no surprise that when Claire arrives with big news that could reignite Lori’s writing career, this truly desperate housewife is more than eager to accept, that is until she realizes that taking a meeting with Oprah would mean bailing on the preschool fundraiser she’s agreed to chair. “It’s like Sophie’s Choice,” proclaims Scarlett, which for Lori is pretty close to the truth since neither pro-Oprah Claire nor pro-fundraiser Jane are about to give an inch on Lori’s commitment to their opposing sides.

Stage-and-screen vet Kumble’s direction is as incisive as his writing, as his five stellar performers prove throughout Girls Talk’s intermissionless eighty minutes. As for Girls Talk’s Act One/Act Two “split personality,” it simply means that its leading ladies get equal opportunity to prove themselves adept at comedy and drama. Shields has come a long, long way since Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon, and in Girls Talk is not only as drop-dead gorgeous as ever, but a master of comic timing and a powerful dramatic force when the script calls for it. Nobody slings zingers like Zimmer, caustic perfection as career-obsessed Claire. A terrific Bendewald savvily resists any temptation to soften Jane’s downright maliciousness. Paggi, pitch-perfect in an effortless stage debut, plays Scarlett with a heart as big as the actress’s native Texas, making our hearts break for the Southern Shiksa when she proves no match for Claire’s and Jane’s mean barbs. Finally, the divinely hilarious Galindo adds dimensions to an initially stereotypical role, though Kumble does give Zusa some lovely shadings in Act Two.

Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz deserves a big thumbs up for his detailed rendering of a two-story Bel Air home cluttered with baby’s and kids’ paraphernalia. Christie Wright Gilmore’s lighting design and Doug Newell’s sound design are equally fine, with Ann Closs-Farley once again fashioning spot-on costumes for each of the ladies, with special bonus points for their character-defining shoes. Patricia Sutherland and Shaunessey Quinn are production stage managers. Bonnie Zane, C.S.A. is casting director. Girls Talk is produced by Molly O’Keefe, David Elzer, and Kumble.

It’s entirely fitting that Girls Talk should get its world premiere in L.A., the only city where a movie/TV/stage star like Brooke Shields can be seen in an intimate theater setting with busy TV series regulars and longtime stage vets—for about half of what you’d pay to see the same play anywhere else. If last night’s Thursday crowd is any example, Girls Talk is likely to be one of the biggest ticket draws of the year, its audiences made up of equal parts married moms and single career gals, with some thoroughly entertained men thrown in. Some will side with Jane and others with Claire—and just about everyone will emphasize with Lori, stuck smack dab in the middle.

Lee Strasberg–-Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
–Steven Stanley
March 24, 2011
Photo: Michael Lamont

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