In her famous review of The Sound of Music — the one that didn't, by the way, get her fired from McCall's — Pauline Kael accused the film of reducing its audience to "the lowest common denominator of feeling: a sponge." As someone who ordinarily enjoys being so reduced and who can read great portent into just about any inane tearjerker that comes my way, I don't think I really knew what she meant until I saw Three Fittings at the Women's Theatre Project the other night.
Three Fittings is about just that: three fittings in an "upscale bridal boutique" called Blushing Brides, run by a brash young capitalist named Sandy (the megahot Dania Aguero) and her assistant, Frances (smart, sensitive actor Carol Sussman). The mother/daughter couples coming in to be fit are all played by Sally Bondi and Chris Groom. Bondi takes the mummy roles, and Groom is always the daughter, and their shifting relational dynamics are allegedly launching points for a great number of deep investigations into the meanings of marriages, mommies, and love.
This would be fine, if playwright Stephanie Alison Walker hadn't been cursed with the heaviest hands of any artist since Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi. The meanings she sought to explore in her script are not buried within its drama, waiting to be seduced into the open by careful viewing and reflection. Instead, she keeps them right on the surface, as though the meanings came first and only later did Walker seek to construct a story to bear them up. Theater generated in this way is about as organic as Spam.
But don't blame director Genie Croft or her actors, who milk this lugubrious trifle for all it's worth. You may find yourself getting sick of Aguero, but that's only because her character is totally unnecessary — Walker's attempts to give Aguero's character some character amount to oversexualized non sequiturs between the fittings (in fact, these non sequiturs are so very non that you soon realize Aguero's Sandy exists solely to give the audience something to look at while Bondi and Groom change costumes). Anyway, it's what happens during the fittings that's the problem.
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In the first one, the mum's name is Diane, and her daughter is Vanessa. Vanessa is a girl who just cannot pick a dress, and Diane's been dragged through six shopping trips exactly like this one: dozens of dresses tried and discarded because, gosh, what if there's a better one out there somewhere, and what if you discover it only after you've committed to an inferior dress in the heat of the moment? It really is an awfully big commitment; you wouldn't want to be hasty.
You see where this is going, though that doesn't stop Diane from pointing it out, rather nastily, while splayed out on the boutique's little love seat and growling like the world's meanest cougar. As she explains to shop assistant Frances, her daughter is "playing out her fantasy of actually becoming the Bridal Barbie some asshole gave her for her tenth birthday." It's no surprise: Any young girl forced to go through life with this cynical bitch for a mum should take her fantasy where she can find it.
Alas, it is hard to care. Amusing as Diane can be and cute as Vanessa definitely is, there is no life to them. Especially Vanessa, whom the script stuffs so full of Barbie/frat girl/Valley signifiers that there's no room left in her depiction for a pulse.
Things do not improve during the second fitting, when Bondi is suddenly Sharon and Groom is Monica. This time, Bondi gets the bubbles and Groom gets to try her hand at being dour, and the issue explored is no longer whether a mother should support her daughter's decisions (as the mother did not in the previous scene) nor whether a bride should choose her husband as carefully as her wedding gown (as the daughter did not in the previous scene). Now, with Groom awkwardly incarnating an eco-hipster who eloped for a barefoot wedding in Jamaica, we're forced to ponder whether mothers should allow their daughters to be what they are rather than forcing their own ideals of womanhood down their daughters' throats. You see, although Monica was perfectly happy with her barefoot little ceremony, Sharon wants a big wedding for her little girl, one with cupcakes instead of a wedding cake because that's very in now, and 500 guests and a gown that's just so...
Both this vignette and the previous one are comic. The third is tragic. Here, Bondi and Groom are Patricia and Madison. Madison is not yet engaged, but her mum is dying and wants to help her daughter pick out her wedding gown before she croaks. It's her way of being present at Madison's wedding.
Unlike the previous mother/daughter pairings, this one's relationship involves real love and affection — emotions Walker seems far more comfortable with than the frustration and angst of the previous scenes. But why now? Why switch, suddenly and without provocation, from over-the-top farce to trenchant realism?
Perhaps it's because Walker knows that you've got to give an audience something to chew on, and she realized too late that in her frenzy of lame, lazy editorializing on the importance of commitment, understanding, and love, she had forgotten to do so. In a farce, the thing to add heft to a show is hilarity, and in her first two scenes, Walker never manages more than mild funniness. Perhaps grokking her failure, she decided to go for the tear ducts.
Even if that isn't how it went down, Three Fittings feels precisely this mechanical — which isn't to say it's emotionally inert. During the last vignette, the theater at Sixth Star Studios was filled with sniffles, and mine were among them. I was glad for the moment, for it does indeed feel nice to feel things. But I like to think theater is supposed to be more than a quick fix for sensation junkies, and I'm terribly worried that by going all to pieces anytime anyone makes a sloppy grab for a heartstring, we'll eventually get so insensitive that we won't know how to cry when there's finally a good reason. Then again, that might be superstition. Maybe we should enjoy our cheap thrills as they come. Three Fittings doesn't advertise itself as such, of course, and Walker probably wouldn't appreciate it being called "cheap" or "thrilling." But don't worry about her feelings. She can have only so much respect for the opinion of a sponge.
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