To write and star in “The Women of Oswald” — conceived as a cynical cross between “The Wizard of Oz” and Sartre’s “Huis Clos” (“No Exit”) — proves that Carolyn Wright ’03 has a brain, a heart and, above all, courage. The story of abandonment and prostitution, Wright’s first full-length play to be produced, is essentially a diary of the playwright’s insecurities about men, love and sexuality presented for public consumption.
“This is my special moment,” announces Dora (Wright) after she opens the show drunk, throwing up in a toilet and cursing at her date through the bathroom wall. “I have something to say that’s very important.” But alas, Dora forgets what she wants to say. Instead, she informs her date that she’s not a whore and that she’s not vulnerable just because her anatomy includes a great “void.”
Wright has set up her play with a clever premise that’s intimately tied to the issues it will tackle. She throws an innocent Dora into a cruel existentialist reality, the prostitute’s prison-like dressing room in the Oswald Center for Stimulation Resources, to learn how to become — and exist as — a woman. But Wright suffers, as Dora does in her opening monologue, offering her personal fears and pontifications about the modern woman as the basis for drama.
Dora’s yellow brick road is her loneliness, and as she sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to herself in the bathroom stall she spins into an unconsciousness in which she knocks on the brothel’s door. Once inside, there’s no exit for Dora. She’s trapped in the dressing room with a trio of whores. There’s Stella (Megan Schuller ’05), the blonde without a brain, Tina (Joan Akalaonu ’04), the pessimist in need of a little heart, and timid Lonnie (Larisa Terkeltaub ’05), who could use a stronger backbone.
In the conversations that follow, Wright zeroes in on the core of feminine anxiety. And the questions with which her characters struggle deserve their stage. For instance, what’s a woman to do if she wishes to marry and have a child but she doesn’t want to be dependent on a man? Should Tina have an abortion in order to keep working at Oswald’s if it’s the only home she has? But merely raising these issues, gossiping about them and dipping into existentialism to conclude at one point — “It’s all bullshit! Nothing matters” — doesn’t create conflict intriguing enough to drive the play’s action. There is little sympathy for any character but Dora. Under the direction of Christopher Wu ’05, the other characters are strictly two-dimensional. Indeed there is little reason for the audience to celebrate when these flat women find brain, heart, and courage.
Wright’s most underutilized tool as a playwright is her red pen. She often over-clarifies her messages and allusions to “The Wizard of Oz.” (Dora’s sparkling red shoes, for example, hardly need a spoken reference to be noticed.) Wright’s humor, creativity and incisiveness — all here in abundance — are partially obscured by the unnecessary talkiness of her script. For an hour and a half, the women chatter in circles, swearing, fighting and complaining about the deadening effects of meaningless sexual encounters. Wright is poignant and economical in but one speech– Dora’s internal monologue during her first sexual encounter as a prostitute. She communicates in a few elegiac phrases what the other characters struggle to articulate throughout the entire show: the fears of desensitization, the feeling of doom upon staring into an abyss of abandonment and the self-doubt Dora feels as a lost soul searching for a home.
Wright finds several honest moments as Dora. Her opening monologue is at once devastating and witty. The terrifying insecurities that bubble beneath her confident facade benefit her overall performance. Wright’s costars don’t fare as well. Akalaonu’s overacting serves only to exaggerate the underacting of Terkeltaub. And Avi Perry ’05’s thoughtless portrayal of the pathetic pimp Oswald is an insult to the play’s small but essential male figure.
Although “The Women of Oswald” could use a redraft to focus the dialogue and include more dramatic tension, the play is an original and promising start for Wright as a playwright. Moreover, her ability to play the intimate material is gutsy enough that we must forgive her for leaving out Toto and the munchkins.