Male viewers alternately ogle at the contestants and snicker at the campy competitions. But the way women look at Miss America can be inherently different, as the pageant idealizes American womanhood and beauty in a way that's both superficial yet complicated, setting difficult standards to live up to. How so-called "ordinary" women view those images, and each other, provides rich material for Shaffer's script.
In fact, The Genes of Beauty Queens, the opening show of Horizon Theatre's New South for the New Century play festival, touches on enough topics for numerous plays. Genes can be both funny and thought-provoking, but the way it tries to squeeze in all of its themes and plot points is not unlike a contestant trying to put on an ill-fitting swimsuit.
First we meet Paige (Vicki Ellis Gray), a new mom. Parenthood is a pressing matter for each of the three friends. Karen (Tess Malis Kincaid), Paige's business partner and a former homecoming queen, is herself an expectant mother, while Sarah, who runs a woman's health clinic and has the wryest sense of humor, may never have a child. She announces that she and her husband have abandoned their efforts to conceive: "I've called a cease-fire on my uterus."
Despite that cease-fire, bombshells continue to drop during the evening, with all three friends revealing secrets and airing grievances. Karen, for instance, is bitter about growing up "pretty," while Paige feels bereft at having never been a great beauty and has a serious case of Tiara Envy toward Karen.
All of this could provide a charged yet conventional play, but Shaffer adds a light and satirical element to the mix. As the friends watch the pageant, the Master of Ceremonies (an amusingly unctuous Neal R. Hazard) enters the living room and the three women behave like contestants themselves, participating in surreal versions of the evening gown and talent competitions, not to mention answering the question, "If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?"
The "imaginary" pageantry is cleverly conceived, but the device can get confusing, straying from its parameters to include a remembered lecture from an inspiring feminist teacher and an imaginary confrontation with a deceased parent. Director Heidi Cline can't always integrate the artifice of Atlantic City with the tensions of Atlanta, especially as the play builds to its conclusion. Near the end, the emcee introduces the B-list celebrity judges at the height of the women's fraught confrontation, undermining the argument's genuine seriousness.
The beauty contest device seems like something that should be either reined in or carried further. Taken to a disquieting extreme, it could unfold like the kind of uncomfortable symbolism Paula Vogel employs in her darkly comic explorations of female roles and images.
Even without it, The Genes of Beauty Queens has so many long-simmering revelations (many hinging on pregnancy) that it strains credulity and occasionally brings out shrillness in the performers. Shaffer's climactic exchange builds to a striking intensity but leaves the story and characters with nowhere to go, and the action doesn't resolve so much as run out the clock.
But The Genes of Beauty Queens has dialogue that can be both insightful ("Do we ever forgive ourselves for who we were in high school?") and humorous ("Thanks to Oprah, I'm the proud owner of a gratitude journal!"). Certainly it's preferable for a play to have too many ideas than too few, and the issues Shaffer explores offer a pointed rejoinder to beauty pageants and their skin-deep values.
The Genes of Beauty Queens plays in repertory July 30 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave., with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 8:30 p.m. Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. 404-584-7450.
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