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Theater Review: "Women in Jeopardy!" at Geva 

Damsels in divorce

On the Saturday night performance of "Women in Jeopardy!" at Geva Theatre Center's Mainstage, cast member Scott Rad Brown (Trenner) led a small Q&A before the show. "Comedy depends upon its audience," he said. "Let us know how we're doing," adding after a beat, "So laugh."

In live productions, especially, laughter isn't easy to come by; every joke that hits is an earned reward. Playwrights, directors, and actors spend hours rewriting and tweaking beats, words, or mannerisms. Comedy is like research science, with hypotheses that must contrive what can't be faked: the surprise of laughter.

Taking all of this into account then, "Women in Jeopardy!" is a damn winner. The audience roared -- big time. "Women in Jeopardy!" is certainly well-tuned: a farcical comedy that somehow manages to feel both familiar and innovative.

The script comes from the immensely talented (and Rochester-born) Wendy MacLeod, who hasn't produced a work in Rochester since her last run at Geva in the early 1990's. The Yale School of Drama graduate has kept herself busy. Currently, she's a Playwright-in-Residence at Kenyon College, and also serves as the Artistic Director of the Kenyon Playwrights Conference. Her many charismatic plays ("Sin," "Schoolgirl Figure," "Juvenilia") have opened to world-wide audiences. And notably, she's had success in Hollywood when her play, "The House of Yes," was adapted by Miramax into a film starring Parker Posey. "Women in Jeopardy!" continues MacLeod's spirit of witty and satirical, female-centric humor.

The story begins in the kitchen, where the bulk of the play is set. It's a clever, subtle subversion by MacLeod of a Victorian-era drawing-room play -- instead of a living room, the kitchen serves as the anchor. Mary (Jennifer Cody) and Jo (Julia Brothers) are two divorced 40-somethings who have briefly escaped the living room under the pretense of refilling their wine glasses. Quickly, the two turn to private chatter: Their friend Liz (Laurie Wells) has brought over her sketchy new boyfriend, Jackson (Liam Craig), a dentist. He's depressed and "in need of company," says Liz, who eventually joins Mary and Jo in the kitchen. She explains that Jackson's dental hygienist has recently disappeared under suspicious circumstances and, worse, the cops suspect Jackson was involved.

It's a brilliant set-up. When Jackson enters the kitchen, the audience doesn't see a remorseful, scared man, as assumptions prompt. Instead, Jackson shoots through the doors with a libido that barks and howls; inappropriately, he makes jokes about his disappeared assistant, and in the process, he raises more red flags than a used car lot on Labor Day. Mary and Jo are in a bind: How do they break it to Liz -- who's blissfully head-over-hills -- that her new boyfriend is probably a serial killer? Worse, how will they keep Liz's oblivious 19 year-old daughter from spending time alone with Jackson? Worse yet, the fun-run is on Saturday.

From there the comedy explodes.

At times "Women in Jeopardy!" is so wild the plot and mystery of "Is Jackson a serial killer?" takes a back seat any chance it can to favor the slapstick or farcical. Occasionally, the play confuses itself for a raunchy, old-school Restoration Comedy -- à la Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The School for Scandal" -- but director Sean Daniels regains control, reigning it in with a unique voice during his vibrant scene changes.

The point of every scene, of course, is to set up jokes. Mary, Jo, and Liz's scheming engenders an abundance of aging-women one-liners: "Women don't kill strangers, they kill husbands"; "I'm experiencing a renaissance of my nether-regions"; "I think, maybe, I need some more wine." There's Bundt cake jabs and quips at New Balance sneakers. There's laughter at Mary's elevated flirting as she meets a new man, not because of her age or social status, but because her transparency is so potent that we have no choice but to laugh -- we all know those moments.

If you look behind the laughs, though, there is a conversation MacLeod is looking to have about the tropes and stereotypes of women-centric casts. But she leaves the work up to us. This is refreshing, ultimately. The job of this play is not to make any large sweeping statements, or to embed ideologies; rather, "Women in Jeopardy!" inspires conversation through its laughter.

At its heart, "Women in Jeopardy!" is comedy gold. It borrows little bits from everything that's come before it, but the result is refreshing and original, and somehow, the laughter comes easy.

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