Dresses and Drama

The Ephrons' wit is a stitch in charming Love, Loss, and What I Wore at Arizona Onstage

Any American woman under 40 who says she's never dressed as Madonna is either lying or Amish."

"I've never really known for sure which of those two people I am—the girl who almost doesn't get asked to the prom or the girl who gets to go with the really cute guy. Every time I thought I knew which one I was, I turned out to be the other."

"Sometimes I buy something that isn't black and I put it on and I am so sorry."

These delicious quotes are from Love, Loss and What I Wore, an evening of monologues that opened last weekend at the Cabaret Theatre, courtesy of Arizona Onstage Productions.

Five likable women—dressed entirely in black, of course—tell nearly 30 short stories about love, loss and what they wore. The clothing designer Eileen Fisher is twice deployed as a punch line. If that makes sense to you, there's a lot more where that came from.

All of the tales are told through the prism of clothing: Diane Von Furstenberg wraps and Chinese dinner dresses, Brownie uniforms and maternity dresses, not to mention bras, boots, mittens, purses and kick-ass heels that hurt.

The conceit works even if you have no particular interest in what women wear. That's because it's not the stories of changing fashions that matter; it's the memories of joy and pain that accompany the telling.

The stories in Love, Loss and What I Wore were taken mostly from a 2005 bestseller of the same name by Ilene "Gingy" Beckerman. The monologues represent a range of personalities and backgrounds and body types. But there's a particular kind of wit apparent in every piece.

Happily, that pervasive and brainy wit comes straight outta Ephron: specifically, the late, great Nora Ephron and her sister Delia Ephron. Together they adapted the book for the stage, adding material of their own. One of them described the result as "The Vagina Monologues without the vaginas."

Nora Ephron, who died in 2012, earned best screenplay Oscar nominations for Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. . . . Her younger sister is also an accomplished essayist and screenwriter.

One of the most uproarious monologues, about the maddening tyranny of a purse, comes from Nora Ephron's characteristically acerbic 2006 collection I Feel Bad About My Neck. Others, including one about a woman who visits a prison while wearing pants that have a strategically placed hole, clearly have no connection to the Ephrons.

Love, Loss and What I Wore, which ran off-Broadway for more than two years, is in good hands in Tucson. Arizona Onstage Productions, a top-notch company under the direction of Kevin Johnson, makes excellent use of the intimate Cabaret space. What's more, the acting is sublime.

In a piece that depends on seamless storytelling and the power of personal charisma, the casting is paramount and Arizona Onstage comes through in a big way. Carlisle Ellis (who takes on the Beckerman persona) is first among equals. She is joined by the excellent Carrie Hill, Avis Judd, T Loving and Carley Preston.

The storytellers sit in a row, their scripts in front of them, and colorful renderings of various outfits are projected now and then. The women sometimes act as a chorus, tossing in bons mots and passionate points of emphasis.

While the evening never feels superficial, it also never achieves much resonance. Even the fleeting moments of seriousness—involving, for example, sexual assault and a child's death—come and go without much emotional impact.

It's easy to appreciate the play's substance, but shouldn't some of that substance make you catch your breath and get just a little choked up?

Part of the problem is that every word—virtually every syllable, in fact—is polished to a fine sheen and given nearly equal weight. It's an approach that's great for animated storytelling but less effective as drama. There's something to be said for the occasional throwaway line, even when all of the lines are so good.

Then again, maybe director Amy Erbe figured that spontaneity isn't all it's cracked up to be.

In any case, here's my takeaway: Spending 100 minutes with these five women is a complete pleasure.

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