Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through May 14
Back in 2014, Stan Zimmerman and Christian McLaughlin, co-writers of this rather sweet comedy, were behind one of the Hollywood Fringe’s great takeaway hits, Meet and Greet, about a group of aging actresses sentenced to Hell, where they must eternally battle each other for the same role in a sitcom. Sassy and at times spiteful, the production was a gleefully mean-spirited but hilarious tour de force.
This time, Zimmerman and McLaughlin aspire to something kinder and gentler. While Yes, Virginia is an adroitly executed piece, punctuated by bouts of the writers’ trademark trenchant repartee, its spirit and themes are very different from their earlier work, and achieves only mixed success. We can’t help but think that the show has been staged too early in the creative process: It could use another draft or two to amp up the storyline and strengthen its focus on the characters’ underlying emotions, now so buried beneath reflexive one-liners that they emerge as false.
Retired accountant Denise (Mindy Sterling) is settling down to a quiet New Year’s Eve when her former housekeeper Virginia (Ellia English) unexpectedly shows up on her doorstep, behaving as if she’s arrived for a day of work even though Denise had laid her off some months earlier. The wisecracking, acerbic Denise welcomes Virginia like an old friend, and the two hash over their past together — but it soon becomes clear that the housekeeper’s memory is going and that she has run away from home to forestall having to move in with her prissy daughter. Denise, for her part, is coming to grips with oncoming macular degeneration, an affliction that will render her nearly blind and deprive her of the vision she needs to see the garden she loves so much. (Getting old ain’t for sissies, is how Bette Davis used to put it; No one gets out alive, is the way Jimmy Hendrix said the same thing.)
It’s a pleasure to watch Sterling and English play off each other. Their chemistry is joyful, and both possess the comic chops of veterans — they can yank laughs the way a dentist yanks teeth. Their interplay continually delights, particularly during scenes that exude the whiff of improvised shtick, as when both gals get stoned on pot-infused lollipops, and Denise dances like Donna Sommers while Virginia whoops it up disco-style.
Ultimately, though, few moments rise above stereotype. As director, Zimmerman opts to stay distant from such serious issues as old age, poverty, or Alzheimer’s —these are merely touched on. Every so often, a character says something serious about her health or her diminishing abilities, but the reference is promptly undercut by a one-liner. And we can’t help but observe that the performers, as assured as they are, are projecting their characters as much younger than the narrative suggests.
Still, the “bones” of the play are strong, with the components of a meaningful story about aging and kindness mixed in amongst the bon mots, just waiting to be refocused on in future drafts.
Studio C, 6448 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood; Fri., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 14. http://www.goldstar.com/events/los-angeles-ca/yes-virginia-tickets. Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.