Washington, Pa.'s Off The Wall Theatre lives up to its name. It offers a far-out show, The Club, called "a musical diversion" and billed as feminist social satire. Eve Merriam wrote the book and lyrics for a highly successful 1976 Tommy Tune-directed off-Broadway production that ran 19 months and won an Obie Award.
Merriam was 50 years old then; in her more than 70 years of life, she wrote heaps of books and plays for children and adults. She was often spurred by social injustice. It's fair, then, to expect The Club to be provocative and amusing, as well as a cultural curiosity.
It certainly has potential as good entertainment, given the talents of the seven women in the cast. In this inventive conception, they impeccably personify men of a century ago, singing nearly nonstop for 90 minutes with fine voices. And their dance routines have plenty of polish.
Four men, dressed to the nines, hang out together at their upper-class men-only club. They drink, play pool, smoke cigars and exchange comments about their wives and mistresses. Sometimes they come up with hoary, pre-Henny Youngman jokes about men and women. They also rehearse a show which they plan to present publically. It includes parts where the men dress as women plus an extremely long melodrama.
But while Merriam's concept looks original, the result doesn't play out that way. Her script and lyrics seem to replicate, rather than comment on, typical male attitudes toward women circa 1900, and they come underscored with music suggestive of the period, created by Alexandra Ivanoff. Indeed, as directed by Linda Haston, the result feels less like satire, parody or a send-up and more like historical documentation. It's in drag, but does it have to be a drag?
Everything throughout remains more obvious than clever, including the music in 26 songs, all sounding alike. The only decent music is for "Vesti la giubba," from Leoncavallo's opera I Pagliacci, a pointed reference to putting on costumes; Robyne Parrish sings that superbly. And Brittany Graham equals her vocal artistry in other numbers. Graham also expertly suggests the most naïve and innocent of the club members, Bobby. Haston herself takes a well-defined turn as the in-house black man-servant, Henry, while Erika Cuenca adds her consistent appeal as the club's Johnny, Merriam's not-very-imaginative evocation of an iconic period bellhop.
Clearly, Merriam wanted to make sharp points about such men. Notwithstanding the off-Broadway success, you'd think, with all her experience as a writer, that she could have pulled it off more imaginatively.
The Club continues through May 22. Off the Wall Theatre, 147 N. Main St., Washington, Pa. 724-73-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com