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The world-premiere comedy Women Laughing Alone with Salad is part of the Women’s Voices Festival, and it’s more of a riff than a story. The title, while funny in isolation, comes from a Tumblr, which was in turn inspired by a 2011 post on The Hairpin. Both are just collections of stock images of ladies pantomiming near-orgasmic mirth just before they tear into a bowl of greens. Callaghan takes the premise that advertisers use this kind of imagery to body-shame women into becoming reliable streams of revenue and inflates it to satirical dimensions. What she’s come up with feels like a series of Inside Amy Schumer sketches crossed with a psychological profile of an advertising exec suffering an existential crisis. It’s a mess, but it’s never boring.
Somewhat surprisingly, the character Callaghan explores most deeply is a guy, called Guy. Played by Thomas Keegan with a believable patina of self-loathing, he’s a jerk of a waiter with a creative writing MFA, disgusted both in his mother Sandy (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a onetime feminist activist now devoted to her age-fighting beauty treatments, and his bulimic doormat of a girlfriend Tori (Meghan Reardon). He treats them both abysmally, seeming to want them to stand up for themselves the way Kimberly Gilbert’s Meredith—a voluptuous regular at the nightclub where he hangs out—does. After a surreal flirtation that includes a speed-of-thought stopover in Jazz Age Paris, Guy lures Meredith to his apartment for a hilariously athletic threesome that, if performed in Earth-gravity, would probably render all three participants immobile for days. After that, the waifish Tori begins to chip away at Meredith’s confidence by praising it. “It’s like you don’t even know what you look like,” goes one of her backhanded compliments.
The narrative is frequently punctuated by parody TV ads and other interstitial bits. In one such interlude, the three women salivate over the single, raw bell pepper Keegan’s waiter has just served each of them, working themselves into a masturbatory froth while Keegan coos like Isaac Hayes into a microphone lowered from the rafters. (Tori promptly vomits the pepper right back up into a silver bucket Keegan has supplied.) It’s funny, and the actors are all committed and strong, but as these segments pile up—particularly one in which Reardon dances and lip-syncs to Kanye West’s “Power” for far longer than the joke warrants—you get the sense of a smart playwright treading water.
Curiously, Salad bears more than a casual resemblance to Kirkwood’s 2012 play NSFW, which got a terrific staging at Round House Theatre this summer. NSFW examined the way men’s and women’s magazines both enforce a harmful, appearance-based notion of womanhood. Women Laughing Alone with Salad does the same thing, only with ads; as in NSFW, its second act is a bold inversion of its first.
To say much more would be telling, but I can say the play’s final scene, wherein Brooks and Keegan both do far subtler work than the material has called for ’til then, is its best. Salad or no, dessert still comes last.