When you look back on pivotal life events — say, your marriage or misspent youth — you often find those memories come back through sensorial peripherals. You might remember the smell of a food served at a funeral, the tap of a kid's foot kicking the pews at your wedding, or the perfume of a divorce lawyer. The premise of the new show "Love, Loss and What I Wore," is that you will almost certainly remember that which you were wearing at the time.
That's assuming you are female. The male memory for past couture, this girls-night-out at least tacitly acknowledges, is as famously pathetic as the male capacity for apologizing for past mistakes.
But as penned by Nora and Delia Ephron from the book by Ilene Beckerman, "Love, Loss and What I Wore" is the kind of we-laugh-we-cry-we-cathart bonding session that certain recently decamped talk show hosts elevated to a very high level and that will, the producers hope, make an ideal end to, say, a day spent shopping with gal pals at the Water Tower Place mall, where the Broadway Playhouse is conveniently located at the rear.
Fair enough. In my book, finding some time in a day of buying stuff to think about the meaning of stuff in our lives and relationships is a very good idea. The premise is certainly sound — little gurgles of recognition are sprinkled throughout these 105 minutes of stage traffic directed by Karen Carpenter — and much of the writing here is very strong. Collectively, it's rather akin to a series of good "Talk of the Town" pieces in the New Yorker. A reasonably diverse array of female lives are here represented, but the preponderance of the material features women both urban and urbane.
Borrowing a page from "The Vagina Monologues" playbook, the Ephrons and their producer, the Broadway powerhouse Daryl Roth, have created an easy-in, easy-out structure wherein five women — the opening Chicago cast is Barbara Robertson, Nora Dunn, Felicia Fields, Katie O'Brien and, in a last-minute switcheroo, Roni Geva — sit at stools and read their stories from books on music stands. There is one through character, played by Robertson, whose several marriages and other rich experiences are interspersed with a variety of little personal histories contributed by other women, such as Shira Piven and Alex Witchel. The other four players essay numerous characters who tell of the need to look good in surgery (right on) or the horrors of being fitted for one's first brassiere, where the fitter takes all kinds of semi-public liberties with precious goods.
Some of this is so light and fluffy, it might fly away like a sale at Filene's. Which is not to say it's not funny; at one point, there is a droll takedown of the whole concept of the sleeveless turtleneck sweater ("Are you hot or are you cold?"). But the best moments are the deeper ones — the way clothes connect to our self-esteem and how they soak up the judgments of others like very expensive sponges.
At Sunday's opening, the Chicago incarnation of the show (which has been running in New York for two years with ever-changing celebrities) was not all it could or should be. It felt under-rehearsed and, at times, uncertain. Dunn, who can be hilariously funny in other circumstances, struggled to spit out the monologues right there in front of her. The stakes did not always rise as this material warrants, if its more emotional moments are to feel fully earned. This is Chicago. When it comes to truth and revelation, we're used to the real deal. This cast could deliver much more.
Robertson is the glue of the piece and honest throughout, and both of the younger players, Geva and O'Brien, are quirky and charming. Their elders, frankly, could take some lessons from their commitment. Even though everybody looked marvelous.
When: Through Dec. 4
Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: $68-$78 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com