Mention Neil Simon and “The Odd Couple” and other comedic works immediately come to mind, but Studio Players’ latest production of “The Gingerbread Lady” offers local audiences a rare glimpse at Simon’s darker wit and a tour de force performance by its star.
The play centers on a past-her-prime singer, Evy Meara (Jennifer Roth Parr), who has returned from 10 weeks of rehab for alcoholism to begin a new life with the help of her two best friends and her daughter. But insecurities and setbacks threaten to unravel Evy’s health and relationships.
Gary McCormick directs with a keen eye for Simon’s signature wit and situational comedy, but the laughs are less of the guffawing variety and more of the bitter and biting variety, which is exactly how one might describe the play’s protagonist, who reminds us of Dorothy Parker, if Dorothy Parker were an alcoholic nymphomaniac desperate for external validation.
Simon wrote “The Gingerbread Lady” for Maureen Stapleton, who won a Tony Award for her performance in the 1970 production, so it’s no surprise that Evy’s journey is the central thrust of the show. An emotionally volatile role with the bulk of the play’s lines, Evy is challenging, flip-flopping from dark to light at a moment’s notice, spewing jokes that have a little too much truth in them, and visibly struggling to choose between valuing her life or throwing it away.
It is satisfying to see Parr sink her teeth into the role with relish. She has been a leading lady in area musicals for some time, and she recently gave a strong supporting comedic performance in Studio’s “The Dixie Swim Club.” But this is the first time I have seen her take the lead in a dramatic play, especially with such a complicated and flawed character. She proves up to the task, understanding Evy’s angels and demons and allowing the audience to see the inner battle play out before us.
Her anguish is most palpable in her relationship with her daughter, Polly, played by Alex Russell, who deploys both wide-eyed innocence and gritty determination in her quest to have a relationship with her mother before it’s too late. Strong supporting performances by Sharon Sikorski as Evy’s vain best friend Toby and Jeremiah Reeve as Evy’s other best friend, a gay actor trying to break into the scene, bring color and contrast to Evy’s plight. They also force Evy to face a harsh truth: that her life might indeed be all messed up, but she has to make an effort, if not for herself then for her daughter.
More broadly, looking through 21st-century eyes at a play that was “edgy” in 1970 is a curious experience. The play itself has become something of a period piece and is dated in a way that reminds one how far we have come and how much farther we have to go. The play’s themes of relationships and addiction are certainly relevant today, but the particulars and scale of those themes have changed drastically. Alcohol addiction is still a serious issue, now with other substance abuse crises, including an epidemic of deadly overdoses of heroin laced with elephant tranquilizers. Women whose sense of worth or lack of it directly correlates to receiving male approval? Still a thing, among many things. The casual racism and sexism that peppers the script and was no doubt a part of everyday life then? Not so casual anymore.
An entertaining play with a dark bite, “The Gingerbread Lady” offers a rare glimpse at one of Simon’s lesser-produced works.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.