3/1/2023 WOMEN IN JEOPARDY Georgia Ensemble Theatre
It's a popular trope that a "True Friend isn't the one to forgive you when you accidentally kill someone, a True Friend is someone who'll help you get rid of the body."
Liz, Mary, and Jo are the best of best friends, divorcees "of a certain age," who support each other and do whatever it takes to get each other out of scrapes. Until Liz gets a new lover, a creepy dentist who hits ALL the “red flag” warning signs for Mary and Jo. When a serial killer strikes at their community, all eyes (except Liz's) turn to the Creepy Dentist. When Creepy Dentist decides to take Liz's young (and healthy) daughter on a getting-to-know-you camping trip, friendship requires that Mary and Jo come to the rescue.
Women in Jeopardy is a subversive lark by Wendy Macleod, author of the quirky dark comedy The House of Yes. This time at bat, she has delivered another quirky comedy filled with quirky characters doing quirky things. But it sneaks up on you, seemingly setting up obvious jokes with brilliant payoffs, but also backed up by serious issues about friendships, snap judgments, and retaining relevance as middle-aged single women.
About seven years ago, a production of this play at Aurora Theatre left me sputtering about plot contrivances and too-easy mysteries. This time around, though, the contrivances seem intentional, all geared towards exploring (and exploding) “Women in Jeopardy” plot devices and cliches. It really helps that scene transitions here feature clips from classic Hitchcock films and Rom-Coms that echo the themes and archetypes being skewered.
As the three friends, Stacey Melich, Parris Sarter, and Valeka Jessica drive this plot like NASCAR professionals, zooming from beat to beat and coming across as true long-term friends who would not only “help hide the body” but even help wield the axe. They are a perfect trifecta ensemble, a group character who make everyone else on stage seem like the outsiders they really are.
As those “outsiders,” Tony Larkin is positively brilliant in the dual roles of Creepy Dentist Jackson Scull (and don’t you just LOVE that name), and stalwart sheriff Sgt. Sponsullar. He uses eccentric physicality almost as a weapon, contrasting the reigned-in stick-up-his-butt rigidity of the dentist with the loosey-goosey floppy relaxity of the sheriff. It is a performance that truly delights. As Liz’s daughter Amanda, Maggie Gilroy is all attitude and sass, the polar opposite of the young woman her Mother’s friends sees as a “damsel in distress” in need of rescue. It’s obvious from her first entrance that this woman can take care of herself. Rounding out the cast is Tommy Sullivan-Lovett as Trenner, Amanda’s ex-boyfriend, a stoner who lusts after the older women (or at least their round and throbbing desserts).
Yes, the identity of the serial killer is beside the point. What is the point is the delightful dialogue, the massively tangible friendships on view, and the sneaky backbone that supports the farce and the gags and the eccentricities.
To make my biases clear at this point, I have worked with director Topher Payne many times and ALWAYS view his work through approval-tinted glasses. This production brings out all his strengths – “wrangling” talented actors to hit all the comedic beats without sacrificing credibility or character, a visual sense that serves the script perfectly, a pacing that leaves audience and cast (nearly) breathless, and an encyclopedic knowledge of movies this script wants to pay pointed homage to even as it lampoons their cliches and shortcomings.
Jamie Bullins has designed a beautiful set that keeps Mary’s kitchen in the foreground even as it keeps the openness of the climactic campsite in our view. Lights (David Reingold), Sound (Bailey Gafeney), Costumes (Jarrod Barnes), Projections (Charlie James Cote), and Props (Art Moore) gel into a perfect tech ensemble.
Women in Jeopardy is a delightful production, and Georgia Ensemble Theatre has given us an entertainment that completely upended my (low) expectations based on the 2016 Aurora production. It is a compelling and hilarious portrait of the sort of friendships we all wish we had. I have never been more happy to correct a snap-judgment riddled first impression.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #GETWomenInJeopardy)