Brooke Shields is dropping f-bombs. It’s hard to tell if they’re in the script or if she just flubbed a line; it’s probably both. Alongside some other feisty femmes, she’sÂ rehearsingÂ Girls Talk, a new comedy by Roger Kumble aboutÂ Brentwood’s status-conscious power moms.
The vibe in the sunny, messy rehearsal room at the Lee Strasberg Studios in West Hollywood is ultra-relaxed. TheÂ five women who make up the cast are lounging or strolling about in their casual clothes, running through a scene.Â Some crisp dialogue is shooting back and forth ““ was that a bitchy edge to the passive-aggressive volley that just shot across the room fromÂ Andrea Bendewald, who plays the “˜Alpha Dog’ Mommy of this competitive group of gal pals? This is shaping up to be an interesting play.
After an eight-year absence from the Los Angeles theater scene, writer/director Roger Kumble returns with a fourth play about narcissistic Hollywood power brokers. This time he sets his sights on Brentwood’s status-climbing mommies.Â His “˜d girls’ from the nineties now find themselves caught up in a world consumed by their own power plays, including nanny poaching, elitist book clubs and ““ worst of all ““ the drama of pre-school applications.
Kumble began his career as a playwright in 1993 with the Hollywood satireÂ Pay or Play, which gained him an LA Weekly Award forÂ Comic Writing.Â His second play, 1997’sÂ d girl, starring David Schwimmer, earned him four Drama-Logue Awards. In 2003, Kumble completed his Hollywood trilogy with the critically acclaimedÂ turnaround, again starring Schwimmer. It sold out its entire run in Los Angeles.
The playwright got his start in cinema. Kumble’s feature-film directorial debut in 1999 wasÂ Cruel Intentions which he adapted from the 18th centuryÂ French epistolary novelÂ Les Liaisons Dangereuses.Â ThisÂ box-officeÂ hit was followed by The Sweetest Thing, Just Friends and Disney’s family comedyÂ College Road Trip starring Martin Lawrence, Raven Simone and Donny Osmond.
Directing his own work, as always, Kumble has assembled a cast of five women for his return to the theater following almost a decade’s absence. Various TV and movie projects have kept the writer/director busy and even provided him with the opportunity to work with Shields (on the kids’ movieÂ Furry Vengeance).
Produced by Kumble, David Elzer and Molly O’Keefe, Girls Talk mines its comedy from the shifting power struggles among these well-to-do Brentwood moms. AlongsideÂ Andrea Bendewald (from Kumble’sÂ d girl and TV’sÂ Suddenly Susan), Eileen Galindo (International City Theatre’s The Clean House), Nicole Paggi (TV’sÂ Hope and Faith) and Constance Zimmer (TV’sÂ Entourage),Â Shields co-stars as Lori, a former successful TV writer who has left her career to raise three children.
Lori’s former writing partner Claire, played by Zimmer, now has a hit show of her own, and Claire senses Lori is feeling unfulfilled.Â “Lori’s dilemma is that she gets an opportunity to meet with Oprah Winfrey about a feature movie, but she’s also co-chairing the school fundraiser,” Kumble divulges, “and they both happen to land on the same day. For people who aren’t parents, they might not realize this is a big deal. It’s really about the breakup of a marriage, in a weird way.”
Kumble goes on to explain, “Girls Talk is a follow on fromÂ d girl which was written in 1997 and was about the struggles of these girls starting off in the entertainment business.” His other three plays dealt with male characters. “I went back to movies, so when I came back to writing a play I wanted to make it hard on myself,” he laughs self-deprecatingly.
Kumble knew if he wrote an all-female play it would be easy to cast. “I know a lot of great women doing comedy don’t get enough chances. I had a lot of good choices.”
He says it came together quite easily. “Brooke was my linchpin. Constance had seen my last play, turnaround. Andrea didÂ d girl with me. We didn’t audition anybody. I just called them and sent them the play and asked if they wanted to do this.”
He maintains his process is to find the best actors he can and then develop the work while they rehearse. For this play Kumble deliberately cast actual parents. “Brooke, Andrea and Constance, the three women at the forefront, are also going through those things in their real lives. Also, I’m not married to the word. With my first draft, hopefully we have some structure there and about 50% good dialogue, then we workshop it. This play has become 30% better through three and a half weeks of rehearsal and exploring the text. It’s live ““ film and television don’t compare.”
Kumble says he feels lucky he makes his living in film, as it affords him the opportunity to finance his plays himself. “That’s the beauty of LA and the 99-seat theater rule. They make it affordable for somebody to put up a new play.” While he won’tÂ reveal the exact budget, he admits it’s a costly risk. “I spend money on production design and all that. It’s north of $60,000 but under $100,000. A lot of money goes into insurance.”
Galindo plays Zuza, the temp nanny to Brooke’s character’s daughters. “Lori’s husband is trying to get her to cut back. So when her $700 per week nanny goes on vacation, Lori hires the $300 per week nanny, which is me who speaks no English and hilarity ensues. We’re doing Harpo and Groucho throughout,” she laughs. Galindo says this character is unlike any she has played. “She doesn’t speak any English, so the challenge is to make it funny with very few words, without making it stereotypical. This piece skewers so many characters on many levels.”
Presumably sight gags abound?Â “That’s a lot of it. We started out very broad; now we’re reining it in and making the comedy more realistic and grounded. The thing about Roger is he’s such a great writer, it really is on the page.”
Paggi playsÂ Scarlett, the Southern Christian who is immersed in a Jewish school. A last minute replacement for Leslie Bibb, who scored a TV role, Paggi is new to theater. “My character is a fish-out-of-water. She’s trying to find her place in this crazy Hollywood world and she wants to be loved by these women.” AddsÂ Galindo, “Her whole life is her Facebook and Twitter. There’s this great scene where she’s trying to turn me on to that, and of course I don’t understand any of that but I find it supremely fascinating.”
PLAYING THE COMEDY
How do they play the comedy?Â Â Says Paggi, “The words speak for themselves. You don’t have to do a lot. Now we’re realizing it’s already funny so we’re trying to find the sincerity and the depth of the character.”
Zimmer plays Clair, the successful TV writer who is failing at relationships and doesn’t have any children. “She is married to her career. I’m kind of the outsider, but am I? We hope that’s where the play leaves audiences in a conundrum ““ what’s right? What’s the best path?”
As for the comedy, Zimmer comments, “We found the realness of it ““ it has its own comedy, so you don’t have to play on top of it. It’s not like we tell jokes every five minutes. Under all of it, they’re all very free-spirited people. Their overall being is light and humorous. It’s not until you get underneath the surface that you really get to the drama of it, and such is life.”
Shields adds, “There’s a huge freedom and truth in jest, even if we’re not conscious of it all the time. When we started, we were all doing [the farce]Â Noises Off. The whole sitcom aspect just jumped off the page. But as we started to rework it, that became self-aware and we didn’t need it.”
Shields speaks highly of her director. “Roger has a respect for the complexities of women characters without resorting to the cliché.” Zimmer chimes in, “It’s kind of exciting to have somebody like Roger approach you to be in one of his plays. He’s not really a playwright ““ he’s a screenwriter, he’s a director ““ so it’s a different experience before you even step on stage. It’s also amazing that it’s five female characters, all very strong in their own right.”
Continues Shields, “Also the dilemma women face in all realms ““ the desire to have it all. Do you ever feel you are feeling as productive or as perfect as we strive to be because society says “˜You can be the power women and do it all’ — and then really admitting to the sacrifices you have to make? Roger has approached these women with a huge amount of respect for the intricacies of this issue.
“These women aren’t clichéd bitchy women who fight. They’re women who are, in an archetypal way, exhibiting survival mechanisms, whether it’s trying to be the absolute best Mom or trying to balance it or holding onto an independence that’s challenged by children. Even though there is humor that threads through, each one of us is truly distraught in our own way, with our own choices, yet trying to grapple, justify and reconcile it.”
Suddenly this play isn’t sounding like a comedy. Everyone laughs at that observation. Shields elaborates, “But the best way to get to the drama of something is through the humor.”
Bendewald plays Jane, the failed actor from the ’90s who married well and is now obsessed with being a power Mom. “I’ve turned motherhood into a profession. She has a consulting group called The Mommy Maven; she has a mommy blog and a website and people come to her for advice and product recommendations, all those new-age things. In her mind she’s truly the authority. It’s for others to decide if she’s a bit wacked-out.”
Shields clarifies, “But the stuff you profess is valid. It’s just, who’s to say who is more the authority on what? She’s not just some crazy maniacal person.”
When this writer tries to outline what the plot is, assuming Brooke Shields is the lead, she gently puts me straight. “You know what I think is interesting about how you asked that question? First of all, no. One of the reasons why I was so intent on doing this is that not one of us is the lead. I mean, we haven’t counted pages but it truly is an ensemble piece. We all get our own “˜lead’ time and that was part of Roger’s design. The question he is presenting, that hopefully people will ask, after laughing, is, “˜Wow ““ who were we supposed to have rooted for?!’ You don’t ever see that in theater.”
THE HOUSE OF STRASBERG
It’s tempting to wonder if the West Hollywood-based playwright chose this theater because he can walk here from his home. Kumble laughs, “I can! I like the people here. It’s a beautiful theater ““ it’s really pretty. I like that we’re working in a school, so you get that energy from the students rehearsing. It’s back to basics, so to speak.”
Kumble confesses he’s not a huge fan of theater but appreciates the immediacy and liberties of the medium. “It’s freeing ““ I don’t have to censor myself. There are no ratings to be concerned with. It all comes from character but these women say some vile, vile things. We’re eavesdropping on conversations and sometimes they can veer into racism, anti-Semitism ““ stuff like that.” Clearly Kumble is not afraid of controversial waters. “I’ve been dealing with it long enough.”
The women second the playwright’s applause forÂ the venue.Â “I like the intimacy of this theater,” says Paggi. “It’s really fun rehearsing here because the students are everywhere, so you feel you are in a theater world.”
Zimmer adds,Â “It feels a little surreal, hearing the students doing their acting warm-up exercises. It brings you right back to that time when you thought you had to do all that to be a big actress. We joke about who’s going to go in there and tell them, “˜Stop! It’s not worth it! Save your money!!’ But then we realize we’re all angry and bitter and have been working too long.”
Those famous, luxuriously fringed green eyes well up with tears as Shields describes rehearsing at the Strasberg Studios.Â “But I also think the excitement and the inspiration is really sweet. You walk through and you see people crying and rehearsing and these big bright eyes and the hopefulness that they came to California with. Your heart breaks for them, but also it’s so great there is a home for that, as well.”
OPENING NIGHT RITUALS
AsÂ Girls Talk is her first play, Paggi has no idea what she’s like on opening night. “Well, on tape nights of a TV show, I’m really nervous at first but then you get comfortable and start living in that world. I am hoping that during previews whatever nerves I have will go away by opening night.”
Galindo says she doesn’t get nervous.Â “I usually get here an hour and a half before the show to warm up physically and vocally.” She confesses she even does tongue twisters.
When opening night rolls around, Kumble admits he’s a wreck. “I don’t drink. I try to avoid carbs. Well, I eat Chex Mix ““ there you go.Â Â I won’t sit in the theater, I’ll be too nervous.”
Adds Zimmer,Â “I always eat.”
“I try not to think of who’s there,” says Bendewald.Â “If I get nervous, I try to rack focus back to the play and the task at hand; that usually takes care of it. I warm up and try to stay connected to the cast.”
“I just close my door and I don’t talk to anyone until they say, “˜We’re on in five minutes,’” Zimmer says.
Shields starts cracking up, “I’m a basket case. I can’t eat or sleep. I don’t want to know who’s out there. I can’t chit-chat. I’m like, “˜I don’t know anything! I’ve forgotten everything! I can’t remember my lines!!’ Somebody has to shake me and say, “˜Snap out of it! You’re fine. You knew this yesterday ““ you know this today!’”
Concludes Zimmer, “Yeah, once you’re on stage it’s fine.”
Girls Talk, produced by Roger Kumble, David Elzer and Molly O’Keefe, opens March 18; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through April 24. Tickets: $34. Lee Strasberg””Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 800.595.4849 or tix.com.
Pauline Adamek is an accomplished critic of theater, films, art exhibitions, music and books.Â She is a Sydney-born, Los Angeles-based writer and video segment producer for her own Arts Webmagazine,Â http://www.ArtsBeatLA.com/Â and reviews theater for theÂ LA Weekly. Pauline has been working as a freelance critic and arts reporter for the past 20 years, covering new releases and film festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance. She also files celebrity interview feature articles forÂ Filmink, Australia. Pauline holds a Masters Degree in Theatre and Film studies from the University of New South Wales, Australia.