LOWELL – When the solidarity of the sisterhood is threatened by a possibly unhinged dentist, cue the laughter.
Thankfully, it never really stops.
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of “Women in Jeopardy!” is a pitch-perfect portrayal of the relationships among divorced single women of a certain age in Salt Lake City, and the problems that ensue when one friend begins to step out, leaving the other two behind.
When the two friends voice their concerns about their third friend’s new boyfriend, is it actually concern for her safety – or pure jealousy?
Merrimack Rep Artistic Director Sean Daniels directs this production. He has made it his mission at MRT to nurture new work and new voices, in this case playwright Wendy MacLeod. He first directed “Women in Jeopardy!” at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. and then at the Cape Playhouse before bringing the play to Lowell.
Daniels has also imported two cast members from the previous productions. Most of the action takes place in set designer Michael B. Raiford’s tasteful modern kitchen that belongs to Mary (Jessica Wortham), a fortyish woman. She enters with her good friend Jo (Julia Brothers), and the talk turns right away to their unseen friend, Liz (Gail Rastofer), who has come to what was supposed to be a meeting of the sisterhood with her new beau, a dentist named Jackson (Lou Sumrall).
The attractive, tall and elegant Liz is given to wearing expensive, form-fitting clothing – what some middle-aged divorcees might call “hunting outfits” – while her companions are considerably more casually dressed.
Both Mary and Joe are still pining for Liz’s ex as Liz describes her new friend in glowing terms.
Liz says there is a reason for Jackson’s erratic behavior: Jackson’s hygienist has gone missing. Not just any hygienist, but a 22-year-old beauty named Tiffany. The police are interviewing all possible suspects, including Jackson, but Jo knows how to thin the field. “Women don’t kill strangers. They kill husbands.”
Eventually the never-married Jackson enters and practically defines inappropriate and creepy in every respect, at one point donning a ski mask that makes him look even creepier.
The red flags are raised even further when Liz divulges plans for Jackson to take Liz’s 19-year-old daughter Amanda (Ashley Shamoon) – the one with what Jo calls “the porn star body”” – on a camping trip to a remote canyon.
Jo and Mary voice their concerns to Liz and take it a step further, screwing up the courage to go to the police with their suspicions about Jackson and what he may be planning.
Sumrall returns as Sgt. Kirk Sponsullar, a buttoned-down, by-the-book officer who speaks fluent cop-speak (“I’m not at liberty to divulge that’) and shows more interest in Mary than pursuing an investigation.
That threatens to drive a wedge between Mary and Jo, currently functioning as a duo in Liz’s absence.
Cue the entrance of Trenner (Jacob York), the stoner/slacker former boyfriend of Amanda who left her hanging with a lame lie to go off with another woman. Mary attempts to engage him to either derail the planned camping trip to the canyon or show up there to protect Amanda.
MacLeod’s characters are keenly-drawn and she makes sure she sprinkles her bon mots generously throughout the piece.
There are mistaken motives, and at times the piece veers into silliness as situations get ever more contrived , but the skilled cast and MacLeod’s own ability to mine the situations for all the humor they’re worth save the day.
MacLeod has something to say about the sanctity of the sisterhood and its ability to withstand seismic changes such as a new boyfriend, and the debate about whether it is best to “settle” for someone less than perfect or to be alone.
While there was plenty of laughter among all theater-goers, MacLeod seemed to really strike a chord with the women in the audience, who laughed heartily and nodded approvingly as the ladies of a certain age dished about sex, boyfriends, book clubs and fun runs.
“Women in Jeopardy!” is not out to cure cancer or send a message. It’s a comic romp, smartly executed and directed, and it hits the mark far more often than not.
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of Wendy MacLeod’s “Women in Jeopardy!” Directed by Sean Daniels. An the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre through March 12. mrt.org.