Halfway through Doug Stone's uneven comedy/drama Sealed For Freshness, the question arises as to what Sinclaire Benevente is doing there at all. Played by the brilliant J.J. Van Name, Sinclaire is, as one record producer called Courtney Love, a psycho hose-beast. Hugely pregnant and slovenly, downing martini after martini, she insults everyone and everything at the carefully arranged Tupperware® party held at the home of her neighbor, Bonnie (Jill Van Note). It's the '60s, the war in Vietnam is raging, and Sinclaire is her blue-collar, Midwestern neighborhood's answer to the Viet Cong. And why? Why would the Elaine Benis-like Jean Pawlicki, played with a twittery false gaiety by Nancy Hornback, and the recently married, Breck-haired dingbat Tracy Ann McClain (Kate Van Devender) consider her their friend? And why would Jean, desperate to impress their new neighbor and Midwest Tupperware Queen Diane Whettlaufer (Jeanne Hime), dare expose her to the likes of Sinclaire? And why, after Sinclaire's appalling behavior, does not Bonnie kick Sinclaire out of her house?
The reason must be that Sinclaire, despite her inexplicable presence, is Stone's cracked Greek chorus and carver-up of baloney amidst these women whose greatest happiness seems to be plastic sandwich containers, covered deviled-egg trays and Jell-O molds. Even her name has something symbolic about it. But back to the beginning: the play opens in the living room of Bonnie and her husband Richard (Shawn Curran), a working stiff who admits his passion for her has chilled after 20 years of marriage; thus the party begins with Bonnie having this tormenting truth in mind. Van Note played her as a woman who, with the help of a few belts of booze, gropes her way out of a conservative mouseburgerdom to someone who insists on being heard, at least a little bit. The canned music, the perky theme from Captain Kangaroo at the play's beginning, and Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walking," at its end, says everything. Hornback was also good as the woman who decides by evening's end to make her life a bit less like "tapioca pudding," and Van Devender was wonderfully annoying and funny as the firm-bodied but goodhearted dimwit. Hime's perfectionist Ice Queen -- she also has shiny Breck hair -- goes from a woman forced to confront the tragedies and failures in her life, even if it is before a group of women she's just met, to someone who feels free to, well, burn her bra in the driveway and let her hair down. Sinclaire, of course, hates her life, for only someone who hates her life could be so gleefully abusive.
Though Act 1 ends on a scene of devastation, Act 2 pulls its punches a bit, though Stone doesn't stint on Sinclaire's physical repulsiveness -- in one remarkable and noisome scene her early labor pains turn out to be nothing but gas. That she becomes somewhat nicer in the second act is as unbelievable as her being at the party in the first place, but Van Name always tells the truth about the character; her performance, risking audience alienation as it does, is very brave.
Rob Odorisio and Steven Capone's impeccable set design should cause groans for anyone who lived through the '60s, with its grim furniture, wood paneling, cream-colored rotary phone, Swiss-cheese plant, bad repros of Van Gogh, and tastelessly hung photos on the walls. Michael J. Joyce's flat, even lighting was aggressively bright and cheerful, the way a '60s home was supposed to be. Stone's direction was insightful, from the way he had Hornback mince about as if her skirt was too tight (it was) to the way he had Van Name slouch in a chair with her legs open ("I need the air," Sinclaire growls). He showed an empathy for women that's a little unusual for a male writer/director. Rob Bevenger and Derek Lockwood's costume design was spot on, from Tracy Ann's sleeveless striped T shirt and bright Capri pants to Sinclaire's maternity tent dress -- she looked like a mountain wrapped by Christo, if Christo ever used paisley.
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Copyright 2003 Arlene McKanic