Parallel Lives: The Kathy and Mo Show, by Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. Directed by Brenny Rabine.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Hank (Jeannie Haas) and Karen Sue (Julie Waggoner); photo: Jim Lobkey
"I just think they should say exactly what they mean!"
In 1986 author/actresses Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney brought their California-based sketch comedy show "The Further Adventures of Kathy and Mo" to off-Broadway. It lasted 35 performances and the two women went back home. Three years later they re-entered the fray in New York with "Parallel Lives" and found gold. The show won an Obie for the two women and set up for a long run, ending in 1991 when they pooled cash and for $50,000 bought themselves out of the long-run contract ending the show abruptly as Najimy went into the movie "Sister Act" and became a film and television personality; Gaffney went to England to become a popular television personality there. They returned two more times to revive some of their characters and played another reasonable run in "The Dark Side" in the mid-nineties and did a reunion show later on.
Now their first successful effort has been revived by Hubbard Hall and Pauline Productions and can be seen Fridays to Sundays through February 2. Jeannine Haas and Julie Waggoner have taken up the cudgels tossed away by Kathy and Mo in 1991 and transported them from the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts (where they have done this show three times) to the wild ranges of Cambridge, NY. Haas and Waggoner are not their predecessors. They bring very different views and interpretations to some of the material playing more than 16 different roles in ages ranging from about 15 to mid-eighties.
What remains remarkable about this show in new hands is how much of the material still seems relevant and moving. This is sketch comedy written more than thirty-five years ago. It is defined by the performance styles of two outrageous comediennes. The opening scene, with two angels trying to define human sexuality for eternity, presents most of the evening’s themes including menopause, childbirth, confession and more confession. When the show goes rogue from the setup, in "Hank and Karen Sue" for example, it takes on a whole new level of depth and measured humor.
For this production I found the first act sometimes difficult to handle. The two actresses seemed to have miss-fired in their interpretations of some of the characters. They were much less funny than one might hope and not dramatically sound, either. At other moment they were so remarkably centered that a scene, "Kris and Jeff," felt perfectly rendered, both moving and comic.
The double-edged "Period Piece" with the same scene played as two women and then as two men gave Haas and Waggoner a wonderful opportunity to advance the play’s setup in unexpected ways and present a perfect synthesis of concept and realization. The other period piece, a Shakespeare send-up that ends the first half of the show, was literally a laff-riot.
The second half of the show, with only four scenes, is fun from beginning to end. Haas, as Hank, and Waggoner as Karen Sue carry on a southwest bar flirtation that is both charming and disturbing as Hank’s pursuit of the lady brings up issues that cannot be explored fully in this format. Waggoner’s slow and eventual break-down is beautifully played as her lady begins to reveal the truths beneath the polished exterior. When Hank follows suit and shows his true self the heart-break is complete and the return to comedy is a necessary evil. I would almost say I liked this scene better than any, but that’s not quite the case. The scene that follows this one is the real stuff.
Returning to the two angels theme-setter, the final three scenes in the show present us with the two characters Najimy and Gaffney have revived in other plays. Madeline Samuels and Sylvia Dunlevy, two elderly women who are broadening their horizons by taking women's studies courses as a local junior college have come to a woman-only café devoted to all of the new-age foods and motivations of the 1980s as part of their course-work. If they can possibly get a reaction to their surroundings wrong, they do. It is hilarious watching them and listening to them. Haas and Waggoner, again, take on these characters like girls in an attic with a trunk of old, yet somehow familiar, garments worn by their grandmothers. Later in their first scene Haas gets to confess her greatest un-looked-for relationship with her nephew Michael.
This scene transforms into the Holly and Molly show (downstairs at the Café) where two 80's hippy poets get to perform some of the funniest performance art poetry ever written and the show itself ends with the return of Maddy and Syvvie on their way home. They express for us what already feel and the show ends with a giggle-fest on all parts. Like the originators of these roles, Haas and Waggoner delight us. One would with that the creators had gone forward and written an entire play about these two women.
Director Brenny Rabine has done what could be done in bringing these ten sketches to the stage. She must have relied on the instincts of her actors and her guiding hand seems to have paid off best in the second act; although with set, lights and costume design elements in the hands of all three women (one must suppose as there are no credits anywhere) the show has an intelligent and unique feeling.
If you go, don’t leave during the first act or at the intermission. As uneven as the first half may seem, the second half of Parallel Lives is where the joy comes into being. I drove three hours (round trip) to see this and I’m glad I did.
Parallel Lives plays weekends only at Hubbard Hall’s second stage the Freight Depot Theatre. The theater complex is located at 25 E. Main Street, Cambridge, New York 12816. For information and tickets call 518-677-2495.