SALT LAKE CITY — A trio of women are having their regular girl’s night interrupted by the introduction of one member’s new “lover.” Jackson is his name, and, even though he oozes creepiness, the bubbly blonde Liz is giddy in love. Her two friends Mary and Jo understandably dislike him, and naturally begin to see connections between this predatory boyfriend and his recently abducted co-worker. When their warnings to Liz are rejected, Mary and Jo find some support to keep their friend safe.
Women in Jeopardy!, written by Wendy Macleod and produced by Pioneer Theater Company, made a strong comedic impression on me. The strengths of the show were enough to survive a weak second act. Macleod’s comedy was goofy but enjoyable; I left the theater feeling entertained. But I can’t talk about this production without mentioning the unfortunate demise of the plot. The fairly simple plot had run itself out around intermission, and because there would be no big ending to build up to, Macleod’s characters were merely filling time. They had only trivial reasons to enter and exit the campsite set. The best that the playwright could come up, apparently, with to have the other characters stand outside the tent and listen while Liz and Jackson had sex.
There were some very gimmicky moments in Women in Jeopardy!, like choreographed reactions, and dancing scene changes; I’m not sure whether to blame the writer or Karen Azenberg, the director, for these. I was disappointed after having seen Macleod’s play Find and Sign in 2012, that she only delivered half of a show this time around.
Thank goodness for a talented cast. Three female leads presented filled-out characters who were likeable and entertaining. And I noted that costume designer Erin Cargnan matched apparel to each of their personalities. Mary (played by Anne Tolpegin) was the level-headed one wit
h a motherly drive to protect her friends. Rosalyn Colman’s Jo brightened up the show with her intensity and humor. (“Women don’t kill strangers,” she says, “they kill husbands.”) At times Jo feels a little like Mary’s whacky sidekick.
Liz (played by Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) is the third musketeer, the endearing one in the rose-colored glasses. Liz is written, costumed, and acted so memorably that even when she is not on stage, she is felt in every scene. Rouse brings Macleod’s character to life, and Cargnan and Amanda French created her look. Rouse’s trusting representation of Liz made it so uncomfortable to watch her cozying up to that weirdo Jackson. The absolute distaste I felt for Liz’s companion can be attributed in part to Tolpegin and Colman’s acting. But Joe Gately’s successful performance cemented Jackson’s persona as a lurking, intrusive, and crude potential murderer. It’s so impressive that the second character he plays is just the opposite.
As Sergeant Kirk Sponsüllar, Gately is valiant and heroic; his presence almost glows from his side of Daniel Meeker’s split set. Gately’s upright posture and sincere eye contact made the sheriff seem so much more handsome than Jackson. Tolpegin lets her hair down physically and metaphorically around this version of Gately. Their flirting was less overt than Jackson and Liz, which was a relief. And with Coleman adding comedy to the conversation, the scene in the Sheriff’s office had an excellent flow. Azenberg ought to be very proud specifically of the scenes she cultivated on that split set.
On the opposite side of the stage, Daniel Meeker created a Snowbird ski rental area. Behind the counter is CJ Strong who, despite the stereotypical boarder he plays, embraces his role in a genuine, endearing, and hilarious way. He says, “People can be really prejudiced against snowboarders.” I couldn’t wait to see what he’d do or say next. Trenner has recently split from Liz’s daughter Amanda, who is played in a very cartoonish way by Betsy Helmer. Unfortunately, I did not understand Helmer’s artistic choices in portraying the character, which made Amanda seem like an elementary student. Contrast that with Tolpegin’s character, who is written old enough to be Trenner’s mother, and the audience must assume that Trenner is interested in a wide variety of women. It was difficult for me to interpret Tolpegin’s mixed reactions to him; at times, she seemed aware of Trenner’s advances, but a moment later she would again appear ignorant. But the scenes between Strong and Tolpegin were all very strong.
The first act passed quickly because it was well done. There were some absurd directions that stood out in a distracting way, but my overall impression of Women in Jeopardy! is more positive than negative. Thinking of Mary, Jo, and Trenner sent me home with a smile on my face.