Those Whistling Lads
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
July 20, 2008
One of the things Dorothy Parker is known for are her theatre reviews, especially for shows she panned. So it almost feels strange to write a good review for Those Whistling Lads, the new play based on her work; but adaptor and star Maureen Van Trease has earned one.
Van Trease stars as Parker herself, and is supported by a six-person ensemble portraying a parade of characters in scenes from both Parker's life and work. The main focus of the evening is on the "whistling lads" of the title—three men with whom Parker had close relationships. Unfortunately, as Parker tells us—and as the rest of the cast helps demonstrate—she was disappointed in each instance. But she went on to use them as grist for a series of deliciously witty and insightful stories and poems commenting on the unending war between the sexes, some of which the ensemble also presents.
Parker's writing is an actor's dream—the characters are clear and distinct, the issues they face are universal, and oh, do you ever get some fun lines. You just can't give a bad performance with a script like this. Some performances stand out especially well here, though. Van Trease is a wonderful Parker, showing us both Parker's wit and the disappointment behind it—often simultaneously. Ensemble member Justin Herfel also stands out, switching with ease between playing Parker's long-time friend Robert Benchley and the hung-over playboy from her story "You Were Perfectly Fine." His costar in "Perfectly Fine," Annalyse McCoy, makes for a wonderful ingénue, while Natalie Wilder is deliciously sly in "The Sexes."
The high point for me was "The Telephone Call," in which McCoy and Wilder are joined by ensemble member Hannah Wolfe in a three-way staging of Parker's tale of a woman going quietly mad because "he said he'd call at five, but here it is seven already and no word"; each one of them fidgeting, fretting, and fussing in her own way. No one of them stands out—no one of them is supposed to. Turning this solo into a trio was an unusual move for Van Trease, but rather than lessening the effect, it underscores the fact that every woman alive has been through this and lets us laugh at it.
Director Bricken Sparacino keeps the production simple, with only a few pieces of furniture and minimal lighting to suggest the different settings of the pieces. Some of the transitions between pieces did feel a bit technically rough—even with such a minimal set, a couple of the "set changes" felt a second or two overlong—but this may have been opening-night jitters that get smoothed out during the run.
The real star of the show, and rightly so, is the words of Dorothy Parker herself. Despite what the Whistling Lads of the title did to her, she certainly got the last word—and was that word ever perfect!