Matthew Nerber is our Guest Author on the Stages page. He is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection.
Deep into Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette, the 2008 comedy currently receiving a lean, energetic revival at the Den Theatre courtesy of Level 11 Theatre, one character, eulogizing Marilyn Monroe, posits “vomiting from too many pills or getting wasted… that’s what made her the greatest actor ever.” It’s worth noting that the unofficial subtitle of this play is “gluttony.” Part of the playwright’s “seven deadly sins” series, the piece is certainly filled with excess–it is, after all, set on the night before a wedding, the night where those not involved in the more presentable aspects of the ceremony can afford to let loose, indulge, and just maybe have the best night ever.
That’s where we find Regan (Carmen Molina), Katie (Halie Ecker), and Gena (Elise Spoerlein), three high school friends gathered in a lavish hotel suite to toast the nuptials of a peer, with whom each have a less than perfect relationship. You see, the bride-to-be wasn’t supposed to be the first to get married; as the ladies drink, snort coke, and trade insults, we learn that Becky (Teresa Kuruvilla) is, well, fat. As Regan (who happens to be the reluctant maid of honor) puts it “I mean, I was sure I was going to get married before her. But you know what? We don’t always get what we want.” That Becky has the propensity to hang onto weight more than her classmates only highlights Headland’s ironic touch–these women guzzle booze and gossip insatiably, all the while searching for the next fix, be it from the bottle or the bowl or the latest issue of SHAPE magazine. Gluttony indeed.
The plot, after this point, isn’t terribly important, because, as highlighted by Spenser Davis’ thoughtful direction, this play isn’t so much about how crazy such a night can get, but rather how our addictions, to substances and people alike, acknowledged or otherwise, can lead us to become the very thing we thought we’d never face in the mirror. Headland’s characters are damaged– they have failed relationships and failed suicide attempts–and they are as unforgiving to each other as they are to themselves. That we still like, and even empathize with these perpetual children is credit to Davis and his capable ensemble, who turn out warm, surefooted performances, especially in the quieter, more confessional moments.
That’s not to say the affair is all doom and gloom. Headland’s script is ripe with one-liners and raunch–including a lengthy, illustrated discussion on the appropriate level of enthusiasm to show while performing a certain sex act. And though I appreciate Davis’ decision to ground the proceedings in relationship and circumstance, there is an underlying timidness to the play’s more debaucherous moments; some of the comedy feels a tad unattended. Even so, there is a charming clumsiness that works, given the intimate space at the Den. And it is credit to the production that it manages to steer clear of the piece’s possible pitfall–one that could make this feel like an attempted Bridesmaids clone (in this way Bachelorette is not dissimilar to Davis’ direction of the smash-hit production, At the Table–which also cleverly balanced a wise-cracking, heavy drinking 20-somethings comedy with a humanist’s urgent social plea).
Headland, as it turns out, once worked as an underling for a certain Harvey Weinstein (her 2008 play Assistance, the “greed” entry in the series, fictionalizes a day in the life of those working under a powerful male mogul–spoiler alert: emotional and verbal abuse abound). A character in Bachelorette notes on the media’s lust for women, saying “You’re a victim of the system… they target people like you. Young white females with disposable income.” Given her former boss’s now infamous MO, and Headland’s obvious social-awareness, a closer read of her work illuminates the writer’s ability to both satirize and indict her industry, her contemporaries and herself.
Bachelorette by Level 11 Theatre continues at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, through Nov. 5. Performances are Thursday-Sunday, with all performances Pay-What-You-Can. Reserve tickets online.