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Theatre in Review: Stuffed (WP Theater at McGinn Cazale Theatre)

Jessica Luck, Zainab Jah, Ann Harada. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Having gone legit for the first time in her career, Lisa Lampanelli hasn't so much written a play as convened a coffee klatsch focused on that troublesome trio: women, food, and body image. Prepare yourself for wisecracks about -- and a fair amount of insight into -- those ever-popular sources of torment: junk food, Weight Watchers, diet books, eating disorders, fat-shaming, weight-loss surgery, weight-loss clich├ęs ("Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels"), and the devastating effects of wearing Lululemons unless you're practically starving to death. Whatever trouble you've had with food, Lampanelli and company have been there, too. Some free advice: If you run a restaurant, don't even think of not offering these ladies a breadbasket.

It's probably a good sign when the playwright's program note is funny ("If you are reading this, you are about to see my theatrical masterpiece, Stuffed") and an even better one when she spoofs her producer in her pre-show announcement ("If you came here for the Women's Project's hourly lesbian poetry slam, please exit the theatre immediately"). Much of the time, Lampanelli seems to be channeling her club act -- complete with handheld mic -- as she discusses her lifelong food issues. They began, naturally, with her Italian family ("My mother's house was the original Olive Garden -- unlimited soup, pasta, and breadsticks, all day, every day.") With her daily high school habit of splitting a six-pack of Carvel Flying Saucers with her best friend, college proved to be a challenge in more ways than one ("No wonder I gained that freshman 40").

Later, after she starts performing, Lampanelli gets together with Big Frank, who tips the scales at 400 pounds. ("That is seventeen Sarah Jessica Parkers," she adds, helpfully.) Weighing 218 herself, she is irresistibly drawn to him ("He wasn't sloppy fat; he was sexy fat"), but, after a brief period of happiness, diabetes sets in and he has to have a toe removed. Her plans to put him on a health regimen come to nothing, and with the sort of brutal practicality that drives her humor, she announces, "I am a woman of very high standards! I have a seven-toe minimum and Frank's getting's dangerously close."

Keeping company with Lampanelli is a trio of Actors' Equity's finest. The newcomer Jessica Luck is Britney, a Southerner, whose life as an anorexic began with the grandmother who would take her on eating binges, then feed her laxatives. She covers up her condition with long, shapeless sweaters. ("I am not opposed to burkas," she notes.) Zainab Jah, last seen on Broadway in Eclipsed, is Katey, who is perpetually underweight, a state that draws not a single tear of sympathy from the others. Still, she insists, "There's more to me than the space between my thighs," and, when she gets pregnant far too young, she is pleased to discover that with the weight gain comes actual curves. The always-delightful Ann Harada (Avenue Q, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella) is Stacey, who is defiantly accepting of her body type. Displaying herself, she says, "People would rather something completely horrendous happened to me to make me like this than to accept that there's a happy fat girl out there."

Lampanelli has written three lovely roles for her costars, and, of course, she is totally at home with her own brand of scorched-earth commentary. (Think of the late film character actress Mary Wickes crossed with Andrea Martin's Edith Prickley, combined with a touch of Joan Rivers, and you have an idea of her hilarious assault tactics.) Still, there's a disconnect between her own savagely funny material and her associates' stories, written in a much sadder, more realistic mode. Britney's low self-esteem lands her in an abusive relationship that reaches its denouement in a physical fight in Penn Station. Katey gets pregnant and runs off with her boyfriend, initiating years of estrangement from her mother. Stacey learns to question her looks when, in grade school, she overhears her mother lamenting the cruel things other kids are saying behind her daughter's back. At times, the transitions between these accounts and Lampanelli's stories can feel more like lurches; shtick and the serious make for uneasy bedfellows.

Lampanelli brings it all together with her own tale of surgery, which allowed her to drop 107 pounds. Even while defending it, she makes clear that it is no panacea, describing the ghastly side effects experienced during the recovery period. Still, there's little doubt she would do it again. Stuffed offers audiences something to chew on, but little in the way of conclusions.

Anyway, the director, Jackson Gay, works to keep all four performers in synch, tonally speaking, with some success. She also has engaged a talented design team. Antje Ellermann's set, a living room framed by a proscenium covered with Tivoli lights, is both home and stage; she also provides a nifty gag when all four ladies enter via the refrigerator. Yael Lubetzky's lighting confidently shifts focus, taking us in and out of performance mode. Jessica Ford's costumes are extremely well-observed, contrasting Britney's thoroughly covered-up look with Katey's ultra-tight jeans and top. Elisheba Ittoop's sound design provides a variety of useful effects, including the sounds of an audience booing and the rattle of a subway.

In any case, with the body-shaming exploits of Donald Trump sucking up so much oxygen at the moment, there couldn't be a better moment to talk about these issues. Of course, anyone can empathize with the ladies of Stuffed. As I am writing this, I am feeling the effects of a Funfetti cookie, which had no business crossing my lips. And, based on the reaction of the audience at the performance I attended, there's plenty of shock-of-recognition laughter to be had by all. And, at 90 minutes, Stuffed is likely to leave you sated but not overfull. Go ahead, try a bit: What could it hurt? -- David Barbour

(18 October 2016)

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