Last Friday and Saturday nights The Wicked Wolf in New Haven hosted the inaugural Second Sex Play Fest ("second sex" as in the title of Simone de Beauvoir's famous classic, NOT the second "sex play fest"). Under the auspices of the New Haven Theater Company, the project was conceived to address the lack of significant parts for actresses in the dramatic literature. According to Producing Director Kaia Monroe, of Southern Connecticut State University, in the last three Broadway seasons thirty-two plays were produced; of the two hundred fifty-nine characters in those plays, only seventy-one were female. The Second Sex Fest seeks to address the disparity by producing a new works festival in which all the characters in the all the plays are female, and by publishing an anthology of the winning works so that the parts can be made available to acting classes and theater groups hungry for female-based drama.
So, what were the five plays produced, out of the forty submitted, like? Well, for starters, it was a bit odd, perhaps, that all the chosen plays were written by men. I say "perhaps" because, while I don't believe characters of a certain gender can only be convincingly written by authors of that gender, it may seem a bit one-sided to give only male playwrights the limelight. Be that as it may, one must accept the judgment of the choosing committee that these were the best of the bunch.
As roles for women, the plays seemed mainly to offer caricatures: Erik Christian Hanson's Jean Awareness gave us two women who had been busted for protesting the Oscars on behalf of Jean Arthur, an Oscar-less actress famous for screwball comedies and regular gal roles; the actresses, Kerry Tattar and Bethany Fitzgerald, were quite engaging in parts that called for broadly conceived coarseness to bring out comically the women's emotional engagement with their heroine; D. Richard Tucker's A Very Lovely Dress, the only play that wasn't a comedy, in which a very maternal tailor (Elizabeth Reynolds) converses with a young girl (Susannah Resnick) selected to represent her people at a public ceremony -- the drama of the piece centered on the anxiety of a woman having to present herself as emblematic at such occasions; Jack Rushen's Jane in Hell in which Amanda Ratti played the appealing and promiscuous Jane who, in hell, has to periodically enact disco moves (because she said she hated disco) and who welcomes a former male sex partner Ira (Adrienne Brown) who has been condemned to endure eternity as a female while spied upon by his Jewish mother (Judy Lenzi-Magoveny) no less; John C. Davenport's Tough Love in which two manly biker girls, Tanya (Kaia Monroe) and Patty (Hallie Martinson) assert their heteroness the way manly male bikers might and Tanya shocks herself and Patty by deciding to become a wife; and Michael Ragozzino's Everything You Own in a Box to the Right, a political satire in which a Republican candidate Martha Margaret (Margaret Mann) finds herself catapulted into the big time where ambition dictates she align herself with the ultra-right wing aspects of the party as comically enacted by a trio of ideologues (Kelly Boucher, Patricia McCarthy, Barbara Hensel) sent to counsel her, over the protests of her more moderate assistant (Sandra Rodriguez).
For the most part the plays moved briskly, as dialogue-driven situations that could be quickly grasped. Rather than full-scale productions, these were more like workshop presentations, script-in-hand. Most of the appeal came from exchanges in which the actresses could bounce off one another verbally -- as for instance the great comic timing in Tough Love -- or from moments of physical comedy, as for instance Adrienne Brown having to disco while enacting a man in a tearful woman's body, or the priceless moment when Kelly Boucher, as a faux Southerner, coached Margaret Mann and Sandra Rodriguez in how to grab their balls.
Everything You Own, directed by T. Paul Lowry (who kept the comedy crackling in NHTC's production of the all-male play Glengarry Glen Ross last spring), was the most ambitious play presented. Its portrayal of political machinations voiced and enacted entirely by women was a telling choice in the age of Hillary and Sarah, but the script could have used some trimming as it rambled a bit and the transformation of Martha into a spit-perfect mouther of Tea Party truisms, while sustained by an undercurrent of anger, only offered skewering of the GOP with no real surprises -- unlike, for instance, Jane in Hell 's introduction of a stereotypical Jewish mother into hell, which included her shock at Jesus' "I told you so" smile when she faced his judgment.
All in all, the offerings demonstrated a few points: male characters aren't necessay for successful plays, and plays with all female characters needn't be Soaps full of Oprahesque uplift. If the plays still fell short of giving us complex female characters, well, there's always next year.