OnStage Los Angeles Critic
CULVER CITY, CA - It feels inevitable that there are now plays based on memes. Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad, which opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, is loosely based on the meme of the same name, which consists of ridiculous stock photos of women who seem excessively happy to be eating salad.
The set-up of the play is simple enough. An unmemorable, ordinary, aptly named Guy (David Clayton Rodgers) is the main character and the lens through which we see his relationships with three women in his life: his salad-loving, image-obsessed girlfriend, Tori (Nora Kirkpatrick), his age and beauty-obsessed mother, Sandy (Lisa Banes), and a “curvy,” intriguing girl he meets at a club, Meredith (Dinora Z. Walcott). Act one is essentially a series of vignettes as Guy meets Meredith, questions his relationship with Tori as a result, and struggles to connect to Sandy. For act two, the play does a full gender swap as we take a look inside Guy’s life at work and his relationship with his female boss—except Banes plays Guy, Rodgers plays the female boss, and Walcott and Kirkpatrick play two of his bro-y colleagues.
As with all Center Theatre Group productions, the performances and production value were top notch. The sleek set highlighted the satirical, ironic tone, and Neel Keller’s direction did its best to sculpt a cohesive narrative out of a play that often felt like a series of random scenes. The cast was engaging and effective, making the most of small moments to realize their characters.
Ultimately, I had a lot of problems with the play as written, many of which come back to the choice to make a man the central character in a play about women. While I understand the choice to use an outsider as the entry point to the story, it ended up undermining the larger points I assume the show was trying to make. Essentially, the show felt like it was mansplaining what being a female is like, and it did not sit well with me. When I first heard of the conceit of the show, and that it was written by a woman, I was excited about the ways this popular, absurd meme could be used to highlight issues about how women perceive themselves and are perceived by the world, as well as the societal biases and expectations women still face every day. Instead, it only seemed to reinforce stereotypes. The fact that women play men and vice versa in the second act does not make the show feel feminist; if anything, it makes it feel like it missed the point entirely.
None of the characters felt particularly three-dimensional, including Guy, whose name made him a clear stand-in for any “typical man” today. Take Tori, for example—the fact that she eats mostly lettuce and is bulimic, which is specifically referenced multiple times in the show, is essentially used as the butt of jokes. While I am not saying this play or any play has a responsibility to take a stand against the incredibly real dangers of eating disorders, it was disturbing that being bulimic was Tori’s most prominent character trait. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Guy is fascinated with how Meredith is a “bigger” woman, despite the fact that she is probably about a size 8, well under the average clothing size for American women. While we get brief glimpses of both Tori’s and Meredith’s insecurities, they are defined by stereotypes and by their sizes, even in the scenes where Guy is not present.
I would have found it easier to overlook the play’s shortcomings if I felt it successfully made any point at the end, but ultimately it didn’t have much of anything to say. It danced around some issues, but there was really no conclusion, no growth for any of the characters, and no statement made aside from the fact that our society is image-obsessed, which is hardly a revolutionary concept. I was legitimately shocked when the curtain fell on the rather brief second act because it felt to me as if the action simply stopped at a random point before reaching any sort of satisfying conclusion. Why do we need to learn about women through the eyes of a man? Why can’t we have a thoughtful conversation about many women’s complicated relationship with food and with how men (and other women) see them without resorting to surface-level stereotypes? When the characters end a play in roughly the same place they started in, it is difficult to expect the audience to go along for that ride and take something meaningful away from the experience. Much like eating only a salad for lunch, this play left me very unsatisfied.
Women Laughing Alone With Salad runs through April 3rd, with evening performances Tuesday-Sunday and matinees both days of the weekend. Tickets range from $25-55 and are available at www.centertheatregroup.org.