"Love, Loss and What I Wore"

Truth be told, had I not been invited to see it I probably wouldn’t have seen Love Loss and What I Wore. I’m not really the target demographic for this production, currently playing off-Broadway at the West Side Theatre/Downstairs. From what I’ve read, it didn’t seem to be the sort of show that would appeal to me. However, I am very glad that I found myself seated in the theatre for last Sunday evening’s performance. The play, written by Nora and Delia Ephron based on the book by Ilene Beckerman, features a rotating cast of five actresses recalling the various memories triggered by various articles of clothing and accessories, under the direction of Karen Carpenter.

I know very little about maternity clothes, shopping for bras and prom dresses or the frustrations stemming from a purse or shoes, so I wondered if would fully appreciate the situations and stories being relayed. Leaving the play, I was stunned at my own preconceived notions. The play was both hilarious and touching, but I also found great appreciation at the daily rituals and indignities women have to endure in Western society when it comes to their appearance. I’m usually done clothes shopping within a half hour; the only thing I ever bother trying on is pants. So I am stunned to hear that women find themselves facing hours upon hours of shopping in order to find clothes and accessories that are just right.

The play is performed as a staged reading, so there is a certain casualness to the proceedings that only heightens the intimacy between the actors and the audience, with many audience members expressing themselves vocally from their seats (the mere mention of Eileen Fisher got one of the biggest reactions of the night). The stories and monologues feel more like you are attended a party, picking up fragments and anecdotes as you work your way through the room. This is further intimated by the simplistic staging: the ladies remain seated on stools, with scripts on stands for the duration, smartly decked out in all black attire (a color choice given its due praise in the play).

Kudos to the Ephrons and Carpenter for shaping an evening that is often funny and often moving, but without becoming unnecessarily maudlin or overly sentimental. So many of the subjects touched on in Love, Loss are not unfamiliar and have often been beaten to death by the Lifetime and Hallmark networks. However, the proceedings are kept smart, savvy and the familiarity of the stories breeds universality rather than cliche.

Mary Louise Wilson serves as a sort of narrative base for the evening. She relays the life of a singular woman through cardboard drawings of the individuals wardrobe, essaying memories of childhood, love, lust, family, failed marriages, motherhood, and getting older with a certain casualness. She also got one of the biggest laughs instructing the audience on how to draw oneself (they include an insert in the Playbill so you can do it yourself, and they post them on a bulletin board in the lobby). Wilson

The other four actresses portray a wide variety of characters. Mary Birdsong brought her unique comic sensibility to her different women, but shone especially as a woman languishing in a loveless relationship for eight years. She and Lisa Joyce have one of the more affecting bits of stage business as they tell two seemingly separate stories simultaneously, only to gobsmack the audience with a twist that ties the two together seamlessly. Jane Lynch, who is well known for her comedic skills from her various film and TV appearances has the opportunity here to display her depth and range as she recounts one woman’s battle with breast cancer in the most moving segment of the evening.

And on top of all this, there’s Tyne Daly. The Tony-winning actress is simply sublime delivering a comic monologue about purses, and how they become a reflection of the individual but she’s also endearingly saucy as a southern woman recounting her romance with man in prison. Daly (sadly, no relation) is as warm and effusive onstage as you would hope her to be. On top of it, she makes it all look so innately easy. As much as I loved all the ladies, I found myself looking forward to all the moments directly involving her. However, there was a sense of camaraderie between the actresses. When one was working, the others were watching her; listening and genuinely appreciating what the other was saying.

A new cast is taking over this coming week, but pay that no mind. Part of the novelty behind this simple staging is that so many acclaimed actresses will have the opportunity to step in over the next few months. The show has been such a success that is has already extended itself into March. Kristin Chenoweth, Rhea Perlman, Debra Monk, Michele Lee and Capathia Jenkins are just a handful of the actresses who will be rotating in and out of the show over the next couple of months. (You can check out the cast rotation on the show’s website).

Since I didn’t know what to expect, I wanted to make sure that I brought someone with me who I feel would feel a connection to the material. When Roxie proved unavailable, I turned my good friend Dana, a savvy thirty-something with whom I used to work. I didn’t expect or know that the Jane Lynch monologue about breast cancer would hit as home as it did. But it matched detail for detail, save for the type of cancer. She had what she later referred to as a “moment” there, and it proved a very personal moment for the both of us as I considered how I fortunate I was to have this particular person in my life. She already has plans on bringing her mother and sister back to see the show.

After the show, I was talking to the show’s exceptional associate general manager, fellow blogger Jodi Schoenbrun-Carter. She, my friend and I were espousing the virtues of Love, Loss and What I Wore and she casually mentioned her husband retaining a particular item of clothing. For the example, she said “an old flannel shirt.” Suddenly, as though a light switch was turned on, I remembered that I actually keep a worn, XL flannel shirt in my old bedroom closet at my parents’ house. I acquired this shirt in ninth grade, and often wore it as a jacket, and used it for a production of The Wizard of Oz I appeared in my senior year. I’ve never worn it since that show, but because of its personal importance I’ve held onto it. Hanging alongside that shirt, are my Boy Scout uniform, college graduation gown, and a vintage 1970s Nino Cerruti sports jacket (total non-sequitur – my oldest brother bought the exact same jacket – same size, color, etc. around the same time unbeknownst to either of us until a year later). So gents, if you find yourselves wary of seeing the show, just remember – you can substitute purses, heeled shoes and maternity clothes with briefcases, fishing boots and tuxedos and you’ll find that you can start culling up memories of your own.