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Talk about strange bedfellows: “Steel Magnolias” crawls into the sack with “Cyrano de Bergerac” in Katori Hall’s “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning,” currently in its area premiere by Lyric Stage Company of Boston (through Nov. 21).
Hall’s play, set in Memphis at the tail end of World War II, has more on its mind than Robert Harling’s beauty-parlor-set Southern sitcom and is way less idealistic than Edmond Rostand’s swashbuckling 1897 romance featuring ghostwritten billets-doux. Moreover, it could be said to number among its other building blocks August Wilson and the love that dares not speak its name. But as derivative as “Saturday Night” may seem, it exudes a peppery mix of raunchiness and longing that’s all its own.
Tennessee native Hall, 34, is a graduate of Columbia University, the American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training and the Juilliard School. She is best known for another Memphis play, “The Mountaintop,” a two-hander that imagines an encounter between Dr. Martin Luther King and a mysterious hotel maid on the eve of King’s assassination. That one won the 2010 Olivier Award after debuting in London in 2009. “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning,” which Hall penned while still studying playwriting at Juilliard (and which premiered last year in Chicago), is similarly earthy, if less apocalyptic and more mundane. And though none of the characters is famous, the play is not devoid of politics.
The scene is Miss Mary’s Press n’ Curl, a combination African American beauty parlor and ladies’ boarding house run by the titular widow, whose husband perished early in the war. The time is 1945, peace is on the doorstep, and it’s hard to miss the message that, although most of the men of the community are off defending America, it will be 20 years before their rights as citizens are widely acknowledged in the Jim Crow South.
At Miss Mary’s, however, the main concern is the male contingent’s missing-ness; as a colleague once remarked of the Ireland-set “Dancing at Lughnasa,” there seems to be a serious man famine going on. And the play’s women are so busy torching and squabbling, catting and hangdogging, that they don’t realize how much they nurture one another.
Historically, we are told in a program note, the black beauty shop was both a female entrepreneurial stronghold and a community gathering spot/gossiping hole. It is also the place where black women wrestled with questions of identity through grooming, deciding whether to celebrate their natural curls or press and burn them into white-emulating submission. And in 1945, the straighteners and “relaxers” are winning — until one pomade proves possibly more suitable to warfare than beautification.
“Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” features a scrappy ensemble of nine, each with her or his own mini-drama. But the main engine driving the plot is self-described Texas beauty queen (and definite drama queen) Leanne, who is morose that ostensible boyfriend Bobby has not written her a single letter during four years of deployment. Lounging around in a series of flimsy bathrobes, stopping only to light a cigarette from the burner intended for the straightening irons or to collapse like a gravel-voiced Greek tragedian, she haunts the place with her seemingly bottomless heartbreak. As one of the other characters says, she makes it feel more like a funeral parlor than a beauty one.
So when gloved and gangly Gladys shows up from Birmingham armed with a typewriter, she is induced, against her churchgoer’s judgment, to play Cyrano to Leanne’s Roxanne. And pretty soon she is playing double Cyrano, replying for Leanne to her own love letters. These, as Gladys’s lust for Leanne grows, inch from romantic cliché to near-porn in which “Bobby” wants to slide his tongue down his inamorata’s “taut neck” to her chocolate-chip nipples! One hardly needs a crystal ball to fear no good will come of this, though there is a message about love being a “gift” worth pursuing, whether it leads to a train wreck or a yearned-for date with the mailman.
But the strength of “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” is less in its unrequited manipulations and period ambiance than in its colorful language and characters. You know from the first moments, when a snippet of “honky music” is denounced as sounding like “a dog that done swallowed its own balls,” that Hall will deploy a vivid Memphis tongue that rings both true and lowdown. So do her main characters, from the anchoring Miss Mary to a saucy, insult-slinging pair of sisters, one of whom is fast and “nasty” while the other amusingly aspires to be.
The lively Lyric production is directed by Dawn M. Simmons on a hodgepodge set by Mac Young that marries living room to beauty parlor and is lent a splash of color by a bright red Coke chest. The costumes by Elisabetta Polito are a parade of vintage dresses, worn with just the right waggle by Cloteal L. Horne, who also gives the best performance as cocksure, fun-loving Mabel, who does not appear to miss her own soldier husband one bit.
Megan Dilworth is impishly funny as Mabel’s childlike sibling, Taffy, and Jasmine Rush is a warm if bossy Miss Mary. Jade Guerra is an aptly languid Leanne, and Tasia A. Jones mixes mousiness and godliness with real if reluctant sexual longing as Gladys. The always commanding Ramona Lisa Alexander makes the splay-legged most of Dot, one of a pair of preening, nosy beauty parlor clients. And on the sparse male front, Keith Mascoll brings a matter-of-fact joie de vivre to an entrepreneurial mailman while Omar Robinson is an engaging if too-too-solid figment as the imagined Bobby conjured up by Gladys's missives.
“Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” tends to muddy its underlying melancholy with rambunctious, stereotype-driven farce. But it confidently, freewheelingly invokes a particular time, place and vocabulary. “I’m as Memphis as can be,” the playwright has boasted. And it shows in the work.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.
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