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Leaving naked messages

Theater Review: "Naked in Encino" at JCC's CenterStage 

Leaving naked messages

The title of Wendy Kout's "Naked in Encino" conjures up images of performers stripped to their birthday suits, frolicking in the California sun, but in reality its indecent exposure is somewhat more metaphorical in nature. While the play (a world premiere being staged at the JCC CenterStage Theatre through December 21) promises its characters' hearts laid bare, it delivers something closer to an emotional striptease -- though it makes for a perfectly entertaining evening of theater.

The feel-good dramedy centers around a meeting among a small group of friends as they gather in the tastefully decorated, upper-middle class home -- kudos to designer Linda Starkweather for nailing those details -- of Karen (Alexa Scott-Flaherty), who's invited them over to take part in a seminar on ethical wills. We're introduced to Karen just prior to her guests' arrival, as she leaves a voicemail for her son to call her. Being a single mother (we learn her husband passed away in a car accident), the somewhat clingy nature of Karen's message gives the impression that the purpose of the meeting may be to stave off the beginnings of Empty Nest Syndrome.

Soon enough, the rest of the meeting's attendees arrive, and the guest list is filled out with the requisite big personalities: Karen's best friend, Wally (Pam Marsocci), a violet-haired, loud-mouthed, hard-drinking gal, who tells it like it is (think the Melissa McCarthy role); Cat (Jillian Severin), an uptight born-again Christian, with a very un-Christian-like short temper; Valerie (Mary Jayne Waddell, admirably restrained), who's battling cancer and happy to get a break from her loving, but overly concerned, husband hovering over her every move; and Elizabeth (Jodi Beckwith), a well-to-do career woman who seems to get a kick out of flaunting her wealth and seemingly perfect life.

As they settle in, Karen explains that they'll be exploring ethical wills which, instead of divvying up one's material possessions like a traditional will, allows a person to leave behind a personal message for their loved ones. The content of the message is entirely of your choosing; it can be filled with your hopes, goals, dreams, or regrets, but the idea is to leave those closest to you with a clearer picture of who you were as a person.

In terms of plot mechanics, the seminar functions as a way for these five characters to take stock of their lives, face their own mortality, and confront the idea that in their own way, each of them are acting as though they have their lives together, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. I wasn't surprised to learn in the Q&A following Sunday afternoon's performance that Kout had gotten the idea for her play after attending a similar meeting in real life. It's a solid idea around which to base a play, and a situation that's rife with comedic and dramatic potential.

While the concept is great, the characters that inhabit it are sketched with such broad strokes that they might have stepped out of a sitcom. (Related: can we do away once and for all with the cliché that heavyset characters constantly have to joke about how much they want food?) Kout has a background in writing sitcoms -- she created "Anything but Love" and worked on "Mork & Mindy" -- so it makes sense that the characters tend to feel that way, but there's opportunity for more in "Naked in Encino." With each of the five women falling into standard types, it feels as though the author broadened the personalities of her characters in order to allow the audience to better identify with some aspect of their lives, but by ironing out those specifics, we lose any sense that these might be real people. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- plenty of people love sitcoms (myself included) -- but with such a strong concept and some great moments sprinkled throughout, I couldn't help wishing the play's storytelling aspirations were a little more ambitious.

Still, there's plenty of truth amidst the tropes, as the women realize how they've allowed external circumstances to define who they are as individuals instead of finding it within themselves. Karen's ultimate motivation for holding the meeting is truly moving (once she eventually gets around to revealing it), and I appreciated the characters' rather progressive reaction to a late-in-the-play revelation from one of the women. Karen's admission that, with her son away at college, she's desperate to find a purpose outside of being a mother seemed to ring true with many in the audience around me. Clearly, that's a feeling that speaks to a lot of parents, and while it might seem obvious, people still need a reminder that it's important to cultivate a life for yourself outside of your children. It's nice to have works that reinforce the idea. Less great, however, is the implication that the answer to Karen's problems is to replace one man in her life with another, as her friends (and parents) pressure her to call up a nice Jewish doctor and schedule a date.

Throughout, the performers each do a great job with their characters, adding dimension whenever they can. Jillian Severin in particular gets a lot of laughs with Cat's frequent sweet and sour shifts in personality. Veteran director David Runzo keeps things well-paced, giving the show a lively energy that seems on the verge of tipping over into full-on farce but always maintains the more controlled tone this story needs.

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