In the abstract, Sheila Callaghan’s offbeat satirical comedy, “That Pretty-Pretty; or, The Rape Play,” sounds like outrageous, intelligent fun. A cartoonish comeback to male violence against women, this feminist rant features two strippers who take murderous revenge on right-wing anti-abortionists, and then post their exploits on the Internet. Among other topics dear to its black heart, show rails against slacker guys who think of women as sex objects and literary guys who write stuff that feeds that perception. But due to self-indulgent writing (that shouldn’t reflect on the game cast), much of the fun is lost in sloppy execution.
Valerie (Danielle Slavick) and Agnes (Lisa Joyce) may be a couple of perpetually high and cheaply dressed (in Jessica Pabst’s amusing costumes) hookers, but they know what makes them mad. “We hate fucking people telling us how to act about our bodies!” screeches Agnes. High-register screeching or screaming are the limited vocal options in this artificially stylized production, helmed by Kip Fagan for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which thrives on this comic style.
When we first meet them, in some anonymous motel room in some state they can’t identify, the girls are stalking their next victim and planning to post the kill on their blog. And when we catch them in the next scene, they illustrate both the murderously manic style that has made them pop culture heroes and the furiously funny thrust of the playwright’s comic vision.
“Maybe I’m afraid of commitment,” Agnes muses, as she manipulates the corpse of the man they have just killed. “Maybe that’s why I hate on these dudes.”
So long as Callaghan holds her focus on the girls — their outlandish murder techniques and journalistic pretensions; their aggressive contempt for male behaviors and attitudes that infuriate them; their half-assed attempts to justify their vigilante killings on psychological and philosophical grounds — the scribe is on rock-solid ground. But having set up a delicious premise for her play, she seems curiously resistant to submit it to disciplined development. To come up with a plot, in other words.
Instead, she folds the picaresque saga of Valerie and Agnes into another play, a far less interesting piece about two guys who are naturals for the girls’ hit list.
Owen (Greg Keller) is a do-nothing character in the manner of TV sitcom slackers, but not as original. His one dramatically redeeming quality is that he aspires to write a screenplay his mother would be proud of. “I’m an observer of the human condition, regardless of gender,” he says, with an air of smugness that would make any red-blooded woman reach for her gun.
His best friend Rodney (Joseph Gomez), a soldier on leave from duty in Iraq, is a rougher, more volatile specimen of manhood. Helmer Fagan shows flexibility in staging the rape-and-torture scenes that illustrate those unlovely qualities in both men. But the playwright just doesn’t relate to the guys, who are cliched in a way the girls are not.
Not even Jane Fonda, in her feminist glory as motivational exercise queen, can keep the play from dragging in between the rapes and murders. But in a genuinely funny plot invention (which could be even funnier in a more inspired perf than Annie McNamara’s), Callaghan brings on Fonda, in her iconic electric-blue exercise togs, to give it her best shot.
The working conceit is that both Valerie, who writes the blog copy, and Owen, who keeps pounding away at that movie script, look to Fonda for motivation when they have writer’s block. As plot devices go, that’s a keeper — even though it’s hard to believe that the tough-it-out queen would have allowed Callaghan to get away with the imperfect form she shows in this play.