Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critic Association member; photos by Charles Osgood
Women Laughing Alone Eating Salad, the latest offering by Theatre Wit, is a hilarious piece of work that also happens to be socially relevant. There are more laughs in the first five minutes of this play alone (in which no dialogue is spoken) than in most comedies. But this is not merely a very funny show. Through the use of humor, playwright Sheila Callaghan (in what may be the first play patterned after an internet meme) makes important points about body image, sexual politics, and what we get ourselves into willingly as opposed to what we find ourselves doing. It is a bold and brave play that toys with gender performance as it explores sexual dynamics, and it requires an equally bold and brave ensemble to pull it off. This is a play in which an extended mostly nude sex scene in the first act is not the most audacious element of the script. Fortunately for director Devon de Mayo, Theatre Wit’s cast is more than up to the task.
The play, which is mostly about women, finds its center in a man. When we first meet him, Guy (great name!) is trolling a nightclub, ignoring his thin date and ogling a full-bodied woman with sexual intent. (We are told at one point that Millennial men want to be seen with thin women but wish to make love to those with “ample” bodies.) Guy, played by Japhet Balaban, is all id. He wants what he wants, and that is for Meredith (Echaka Agba) to become his sex partner despite the fact that he has a current girlfriend, Tori (Daniella Pereira). Tori is a willing and sensual young woman, but Guy has disdain for her anorexic lifestyle. She dreams of eating but refuses to do so; one very funny scene has her listing all the foods she imagines she would like to order for breakfast, all the while knowing that she will not eat any of them. Pereira is perfect as this yoga-loving, spirited woman. She has precisely the kind of attitude—an unlikely combination of denial, amorousness, arrogance, and snark—that make this character fun. In the freestyle fight she has with Agba’s Meredith, Pereira also shows her physical comedy chops: together, the two women create a comic fight scene that might have been at home in “The Three Stooges.”
As to Agba, she dominates the stage from the moment she enters. Her Meredith is as fearlessly lascivious as Guy, matching him pretty much line for line in their first encounter, and her snark is next level: she sees right through him and wants him to know it. She talks a good game about her sexual nature; still, as a robust, hearty woman, she harbors doubts about herself. Comparing herself to Tori, she says that she’s far more woman than the waiflike girlfriend but, after an athletic three-way, she allows the smaller woman to put her down. (It’s this conversation that leads to the aforementioned fight.) Clearly, Meredith has body issues too despite her posturing. Callaghan is saying here that, inundated with media images of the “perfect” female form, it’s difficult for any woman, no matter how strong, to escape some degree of uncertainty.
If there is any doubt about that, it is put to rest in the character of Guy’s mother Sandy (Jennifer Engstrom), whose extremely judgmental attitude about female bodies leads her to mutilate her own in her search for perfection. She has tried everything up to and including Botox but, as she ages, she finds it isn’t enough and needs far more radical tactics in order to measure up with the media images while her body is (literally) falling apart. Engstrom is wonderful as this woman who dominates her son while exhibiting downright self-loathing behavior. She dives into the character’s eccentricities (believe me, that’s a mild word here) with vigor, and the fact that Guy hates her for what she does to herself is not going to get her to stop any more than his general antipathy stops Tori’s anorexia. Balaban’s performance is also outstanding: he walks a fine line between male chauvinist pig and put-upon son and partner, and he manages to make it work. The sheer joy he exhibits during the sex scene shows him at his finest fettle as the former, as he doesn’t seem to care a jot for these women as human beings: he wants them for what they can do to him (and to each other) physically. Still, Balaban has reserves of emotion for Guy’s hatred of his mother’s and Tori’s actions, and we can actually feel for him in scenes with them.
About that opening scene: it is literally the three women eating salad, and when I tell you that it is one of the most hilarious things you’re likely to see in a theatre, you might find it hard to believe. But it’s true: this voiceless five minutes or so is brilliantly rendered by de Mayo to set the stage for everything that follows. Dramaturg Regina Victor points out in a program note that there is and ought to be something disturbing about the moment, which reflects the meme perfectly:
“Depicting women laughing at salad actually sends the message that women are emotionally unstable. Which makes perfect sense when you say it aloud because when was the last time YOU laughed at a vegetable?”
De Mayo, though, has her actors laughing during this scene and her audience in stitches watching it. Other scenes too, played as interludes during Act One, show some wonderful directorial invention, notably one in which Agba presents “The Dance of the Seven Lettuces.” Yes, it’s as bizarre and funny as that sounds.
After the whirlwind of Act One, Women Laughing Alone With Salad goes in a whole new direction in the second act, one that is just as funny but this time takes on male self-image, male bonding, and male views of female self-image issues, as well as the advertising industry as a whole. I won’t say more about it because I don’t wish to spoil the surprises, but I will say that, though it still centers on Guy, it finds all four actors stretching themselves in entirely unpredictable ways.
Aside from the actors and de Mayo’s direction, the play wouldn’t work without some other key contributions. The set, a flexible one by Arnel Sancianco, is complemented by outstanding projections by Joseph A. Burke. Costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg impeccably capture the essences of each character we meet. Heather Gilbert’s lighting and Shain Longbehn’s sound are masterful. The sex scene/fight scene required no fewer than four designers and assistants. There are 28 credited people on the production staff, an incredibly high number for a straight play, and their work is apparent. It’s fair to say that tech/production is the fifth star of this show.
The play, which Victor says “highlights the absurdity of the human condition as it relates to gender performance and body image,” is absolutely golden. You’re never, ever going to have more fun with salad. It’s a cleverly written, uproarious comedy with a serious message and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best shows of 2018 so far, and a “must-see.”
Women Laughing Alone With Salad is now playing at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago, until April 29. Performance times vary; check website . Tickets are available from Theatre Wit. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.