July 25, 2009

All is Vanity with the New "Vanities"

Both “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s manifesto about the unfulfilled lives of suburban housewives; and “The Group,” Mary McCarthy’s novel about the unhappy lives of eight Vassar College grads, were published in 1963. Over the next decade and a half, everyone who could get near a typewriter seemed to write about women discovering that their lives were fairytales without the happy endings.

I read a bunch of those books and wept my way through similarly-themed movies like “An Unmarried Woman” and “Diary of A Mad Housewife.” But somehow I missed Vanities, Jack Heifner’s play about the consciousness-raising journey from high school to young adulthood taken by three Texas best friends forever. The show, which begins in 1963, opened in 1976, ran off-Broadway for 1,785 performances and gave a young Kathy Bates her first big break.

Thirty years have gone by and women’s lib has moved on to the “Lipstick Jungle” phase but I was still curious about Vanities, particularly when I heard that it had been turned into a musical. Now, having seen it, all I can say is that I waited too long. For the show, currently running at Second Stage Theatre through Aug. 9, is painfully outdated.

Maybe the producers, who originally planned to bring this new version of Vanities to Broadway last fall but changed course when the economy tanked, thought that baby boom women would get a nostalgic kick out of looking back at how naive they once were. (Click here to listen to an interview they did with Broadway Bullet’s Michael Gilboe.) But what may have seemed mildly insightful when the play first debuted in the ‘70s now
come off as fairly insipid. Heifner, who also wrote the book for the musical, and his collaborators seem to have anticipated that because they tack on a fourth act that attempts to add some relevance by bringing the trio into middle-age. Instead, it ends up spinning an equally false kind of fairytale.

The music doesn’t help. The songs aren’t listed in the Playbill, a growing trend that needs to be stopped before it spreads. And this show really could have used a song list because David Kirshenbaum’s songs—generic pop with uninspired lyrics
are hard to tell apart. I’d like to offer more constructive criticism but I almost forgot the individual numbers before they were over.

That’s not the fault of the actresses, who work had. Sarah Stiles comes off best in Bates’ old role as the most traditional of the trio who gets to marry her high school sweetheart and to say the show’s funniest lines. Stiles has a brassy voice and an appealing stage presence. I’d love to see her in something else. Lauren Kennedy as the free spirit of the group and Anneliese Van Der Pol as the most conflicted are fine too. But the show's one-dimensional roles require something more than “fine” to make you care about the characters.

Still Judith Ivey, the award-winning and Texas-born actor who directs the musical, gamely keeps things moving along. And set designer Anna Louizos and costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi deserve special kudos for their smart and witty work. If only the entire show had been as entertaining as the scene and costume changes.

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