Playwrights: Cheryl Thomas, Gary Malinowski and Kathleen Lawlor. At: 3 Squares Productions and Richard Pryor Jr. at Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: www.lipstickgoesonlast.com; $30. Runs through: June 23
Someone should ask the three playwrights behind the world-premiere play Lipstick Goes on Last these important questions:
Is Lipstick Goes on Last supposed to be a campy, adultery-filled sex farce set in the late 1970s? Or is it meant to be a tender Lifetime TV-style movie drama dealing with a mother's destabilizing alcoholism and a conflicted 13-year-old girl who wants more independence and a happier home life?
Are we supposed to laugh at all the male characters' rampant and deceitful bisexuality (complete with dated visual jokes equating homosexuality with cross-dressing and disco dancing), or be horrified by the end of the play at the prospect of the forthcoming AIDS crisis on the play's families?
And why has actor/co-producer Richard Pryor Jr. (son of the late, legendary comedian) decided to make Lipstick Goes on Last his Chicago stage debut when he only has a minor supporting part?
Now playing at the Den Theatre in a middling production directed by David Zak and Natalie Sallee, Lipstick Goes on Last feels about 20 years behind the curve when it comes to simultaneously poking fun at and feeling nostalgia for 1970s fads, slang and style. And though the play lasts just under 90 minutes without an intermission, its meandering pace and unfocused dramatic scenes make it feel much longer.
It's also annoying to spot all the anachronistic props and costume accessories throughout the show. Modern-day water bottles, Girl Scout cookie boxes and the prominent appearance of an early 1980s Rubik's Cube all take you out of the play's late 1970s setting, and make you question the choices of prop and wardrobe coordinator Kari Warning.
On the acting front, there isn't much to write home about since playwrights Cheryl Thomas, Gary Malinowski and Kathleen Lawlor didn't create fully rounded characters. The plot mechanics also aren't that believable, especially with everyone appearing so chummy and happy by the too-easily resolved ending.
And with such quirky characters like an alcoholic former beauty queen named Meredith (Lawlor); her cookie-obsessed best friend, Rita (Ashley J. Dearborn); an adulterous Girl Scout leader named Vicki (Suzy Black); and a drag-dressing bisexual husband named James (Pryor), Lipstick Goes on Last is strangely devoid of solid laughs. If the playwrights involved took a much campier approach to their material, Lipstick Goes on Last might have inspired more mirth and fun rather than feeling like an undercooked comic drama of diverse families.
So just what is the point of Lipstick Goes on Last? Sadly, it comes off as a misbegotten exercise in tone confusion and fuzzy nostalgia for the dying days off the disco era. Pryor really should have found another property for his Chicago debut.