Four fabulous females feud, fuss, fight, and forge unlikely bonds as women on a weekend self-improvement quest in Stan Zimmerman’s terrifically performed 21st-anniversary revival of Justin Tanner’s laugh-packed Heartbreak Help.

Welcome to “Women, Writer, Hero,” the three-day self-help conference that has brought Margo (Melissa Peterman), Paula (Teresa Ganzel), Andromeda (Marissa Jaret Winokur), and Sage (Sarah Gilman) to the cheapest accommodations the Joshua Tree Motel has to offer four women sharing two double beds.

Since no foursome could be more dissimilar, it’s no wonder sparks fly from the get-go, especially since the first two to arrive are brassy, bar-hopping Margo and germophobic teetotaler Paula, the oddest couple since Neil Simon first introduced the world to Oscar and Felix back in the mid-60s.

Unlike Simon’s mismatched roommates, however, Margo and Paula find their odd-couplehood doubled when Andromeda and her sad-sack teenage daughter Sage show up, already at each other’s throats and no less likely to get along with the earlier arrivals than they are with each other

The sexually adventurous Margo’s already started flirting with front desk clerk Diego while neti-pot expert Paula’s come prepared with her own hypoallergenic pillow. Meanwhile, Andromeda devotes her life to doing “fabulous healing work with women of the Los Angeles area,” never travels without her “healing crystals,” and would like nothing more than to bond with a daughter whose sole intention this weekend is to spend it either headphones on or watching TV.

Talk about different strokes for different folks.

Anyone inside the Dorie Theatre who doesn’t expect these four women to reveal sides to their character not immediately evident at first glance (and to come out better and closer and changed for good by their desert weekend together) hasn’t seen The Breakfast Club or any of its imitators in the years since John Hughes had mismatched teens discover how much they had in common thanks to forced proximity.

Predictable or not, what worked in the past still works today thanks to Tanner’s gift for creating female characters that go beyond sitcom cutouts, Zimmerman’s effervescent direction, and an ab-fab cast of three TV/stage vets with credits a mile long and one newcomer more than able to hold her own in such esteemed company.

It’s a real treat to get to see TV’s Peterman (6 seasons on Reba and 6 on Baby Daddy) playing blowsy, Winokur (Broadway Hairspray’s Tony-winning Tracy Turnblad) playing brassy, and Gilman (Disney Channel’s I Didn’t Do It) playing surly, and all three doing so like nobody’s business. Best of all is the divine Ganzel, who’s made a career of playing ditzy (which Paula most definitely is), but investing her latest flighty blonde with as much fire and heart as ditz.

For its current revival, Heartbreak Help has been trimmed from its original two-act, two-hour running time to a brisk 70 minutes, the better to match contemporary theatrical tastes, and updated with an occasional pop culture reference, as when Channing Tatum’s name pops up along the way, though its hard to imagine any 2017 teen leading a texting-free life.

Kudos to designer Chris Soley for a just-right downscale desert hotel set (having the beds face each other is an inspired choice). From “dressed for the prom” Paula to Margo’s edging-on-slutty outfits to Skye’s teenage frump to Andromeda’s closetful of caftans, costumes suit each character to a T. Stage manager Miranda Richardson’s lighting and some nifty song choices in her sound design complete a budget-conscious but first-rate intimate theater production design.

Heartbreak Help is produced by Zimmerman and Starina Johnson, who assistant directs. Vered Blonstein, Kalinda Gray, Jennifer Holloway, and Emily Nelson are understudies.

While not nearly as outrageous as his Voice Lessons and Oklahomo!, Justin Tanner’s Heartbreak Help offers more than enough zany to delight Tanner fans and more traditional theatergoers alike. Expect to be wearing a satisfied smile as you exit the Dorie.

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The Dorie Theatre in THE COMPLEX, 6476 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 21, 2017
Photos: Adam Southard

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