First Nighter: 'Kingdom Come,' 'Ultimate Beauty Bible' Angrily Go After Women's Issues

If you have any doubt that women are concerned about regularly being ranked from 1 to 10 on a scale of 10, if you have any doubt that women are concerned about regularly being judged from myriad unnecessary angles, you better mosey around to Kingdom Come, at the Roundabout Underground, and Ultimate Beauty Bible, the Page 73 production at The New Ohio. They're two works that tackle these issues head-on.

Jenny Rachel Weiner wrote the former, and Caroline V. McGraw wrote the latter. In Kingdom Come, Samantha Carlin (Carmen M. Herlihy) and Layne Falcone (Crystal Finn) are women in despair over their looks who communicate deceptively in cyberspace. In Ultimate Beauty Bible, Danielle (Eboni Booth), Tiffany (Ariel Woodiwiss) and Autumn (Molly Griggs) are colleagues at a women's magazine whose lives don't exactly mirror the messages their publication sends editorially (see title).

(Curiously, both plays are well directed by men--Kip Fagan for Kingdom Come and Stephen Brackett for Ultimate Beauty Bible.)

I won't hold out for either play being entirely persuasive, but they add substantially to the national discussion of revelations about skewed attitudes towards women as magnified during President-elect Donald J. Trump's campaign.

In Kingdom Come, Samantha, or Sammy, is an obese young Carson City, Nevada woman for whom it's painful even to get out of bed. (Think of a female counterpart to the protagonist in Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale.) To amuse herself between shifts filled by kindly carer Delores Aquendo (Socorro Santiago) she pretends online to be Delores's hunky son Dominick (Alex Hernandez), a former classmate of hers.

She even sends Layne pictures of Dominick she's taken during visits to her bedside the extremely pleasant fellow, now an aspiring Hollywood actor, has made. The beefcake shots help her lure across-town Layne into a cyberspace affair. It's the two women's body-image despair that entangles them and worsens when Layne, thinking to confront the person she assumes is her true inamorata drives to California, confronts the perplexed Dominick and actually wins his love.

Whereupon--this is when Kingdom Come does some mighty heavy credulity stretching--Dominick brings Layne to meet Sammy. Before too long the two women realize who they are to each other, and, as the play ends, the sham leaves them flummoxed.

If you're thinking that Sammy's online love letters, which are supposed to be from one person but are actually written by another, are reminiscent of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, you've got it right. Probably, Weiner also knows on what classic she's spinning. She's done a good job, if not a completely convincing one.
Playwright McGraw is somewhat less blatant about body image in Ultimate Beauty Bible, although Danielle does announce early that she's been given an ovarian cancer diagnosis, and her checkered progress is followed throughout the caustic, intermissionless piece.

At the same time as she's been told her condition, she begins a romance with the appealing Kit (Alex Breaux), who in due time is exposed to Danielle's cynical roommate Lee (Nadine Malouf). Though Kit and Lee take an instant dislike to one another, it isn't that long before dislike thaws into like and then even more than that, leaving Danielle to look on disparagingly.

Throughout, editor Tiffany behaves dictatorially to everyone, not unlike women bosses are often shown to be these chilly days. (This isn't new, of course. Joan Crawford was the same hard-nosed figure in the 1959 movie adaptation of Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, which also poked into the lives of Manhattan working girls in publishing.) Griggs, playing an ambitious intern, arrives intermittently to vouchsafe her philosophical thoughts in a spotlight.

Whether what Autumn has to say adds up to anything meaningful is questionable. She does confront Tiffany about moving up the editorial ladder. Largely due to McGraw's singeing dialogue, the tete-a-tete makes for a juicy scene. Other plot developments might strike patrons as familiar. Surely, a woman stealing a roommate's boyfriend has been spotted before.

Pointedly, though, McGraw has her way with dialogue throughout, which the cast--including Sathya Sridharan as another sympathetic, sympathizing male--delivers forcibly. If there's a first among troupe equals, it's Malouf, who has a memorably biting approach to the maledictions.

It so happened I saw the plays on successive nights. Consequently, it was hard not to be moved by the similar themes so relevant to contemporary women's compromised circumstances. It's no wonder women playwrights nowadays--surely advised as all writers traditionally are to write about what they know--are writing about what they know of being treated as second-class citizens.

Let's hope women playwrights--why not men, too?--continue along those lines in order to keep theater cogent at a time when society needs every ounce and inch of help it can get. It certainly looks as if more and more plays at the moment are of the moment. Noticeably. How great for theatergoers if things remain this way.