A Thing of Beauty

It's not often that Jennifer Love Hewitt, JonBenet Ramsey and the Virgin Mary occupy the same spot in a relatively sane person's mind. But that trinity was on this person's mind after watching the immensely enjoyable second act of Carolyn Carpenter's world-premiere play, Six Random Women and the Voice of a Man, at Alternative Repertory Theatre (ART).

In Act 2, five women compete for the coveted crown of Miss US of A, their dreams, fears, obsessions and pettiness fueling their quest for the crown. The playwright's obvious choice would be to savage the pageant machinery—and Carpenter's characters do hurl plenty of invective at hypocrisy and shallowness. But this isn't an easy, predictable skewering of beauty pageants. As ridiculous and dehumanizing as it may be to have young women parading on a runway, Carpenter says, there's also something noble—even profound—about the aspirations of the participants, if not the pageant itself.

It's her ability to say something provocative about such an apparently tired subject that makes Carpenter's play such a refreshing change of pace. Most new playwrights—this is Carpenter's first full production—are so preoccupied with their story and their characters that they fail to make something rather important: a point.

There is a very compelling point in this play. At its deepest level, Six Random Women isn't concerned with beauty pageants as much as with exploring the connection among beauty, purity, sex and exploitation, an alluring and dangerous nexus. Those women who best navigate these treacherous, complicated waters are the ones who "succeed"—women such as Hewitt, all pouty-eyed and sensual-lipped on the magazine covers, all gurgly naivet on the TV talk shows. The ones who don't, or who have no choice in the matter, become horrifying anti-symbols of a society's obsession with youthful sexuality—e.g., Ramsey. And presiding over both realms is surely the most potent female symbol of all: the Virgin Mary, who gives birth to the redeemer of mankind without once having to spread her legs.

But this isn't solely an exercise in cerebral commentary. This is also a very funny, down-to-earth play, one that manages to balance sex with Butterfingers, decapitated Barbie-doll heads and teenage lesbian basketball players with richly drawn, very human characters.

There's Miss Texas (steamy Tracy Merrifield), a bitch straight outta Dallas, equally consumed by competition and an intense need for rules and structure. There's Miss Arizona (warmly human Sondra Bailey), a woman born into a hideously ugly family who, through an exacting study of the art of aesthetics, has managed to transform her troll-like features. There's Miss California (a radiant Terra Shelman), just about the most charming, sexually prolific bulimic imaginable. There's Miss District of Columbia (a perfectly cast, deer-in-the-headlights Heather Kjos), who sees in the Miss US of A pageant everything bright and shiny about the most wonderful, blessed-by-God nation on Earth. And there's Miss New York (Gay Storm), the only character who feels written as a stereotype but is saved by an energetic performance.

The person responsible for keeping the volatile mix of personalities from boiling over is Mrs. Ross. As portrayed by a solid Laurie T. Freed, Mrs. Ross carries a dark secret—which is unfortunately the weakest component of the play.

The performances and material are complemented by Pat Terry's direction, which is at its best during the surreal interludes in which each contestant reveals her thoughts as her competitors stand frozen, their Stepford smiles in place.

Add it up, and you get a world-premiere production that truly feels fresh, vibrant and worth seeing.

If only the whole night was as good. The first act is a series of scenes and monologues that seems as random as the title would suggest. Evidently, the second act of Carpenter's play began as one such short scene, called "Illusions," which Terry, who doubles as ART's artistic director, asked the playwright to expand into a longer one-act.

She should have asked her to expand it into a full-length play. The first-act material never even shifts into first gear, with the scenes and monologues feeling mostly undone or insignificant. The effective ones are a triumph of good performers over a mediocre script. Storm is particularly good as a frighteningly unstable wife and mother in a scene about marital infidelity, and Shelman is a joy to watch as she performs yoga while skillfully integrating armchair New Age mysticism and keenly felt spirituality in a monologue about a woman who finds God by finding herself.

ART should get a couple of standing O's for staging its third world premiere of the year and for not staging a Christmas play in a season when most theaters wouldn't dare think of producing anything but a holiday show. That in itself is a thing of beauty.

Six Random Women and the Voice of a Man at Alternative Repertory Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 836-7929. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Dec. 11. $22-$25.

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