“That’s sooo funny, Roger,” Brooke Shields said to playwright Roger Kumble during a read-through of “Girls Talk,” his new satire about Hollywood power moms at the Lee Strasberg Theatre opening March 18. Shields and her co-stars were laughing over the scene in which the character of Scarlett (Nicole Paggi of “Hope & Faith”), a Southern blond converting to Judaism, has flounced into a meeting of fellow moms from the fictional Temple Jerusalem pre-school in Brentwood. “This challah is to die for ... Challah VaChallah,” Scarlett gushes, a la Flava Flav.
In a later scene, Jane (Andrea Bendewald of “Suddenly Susan”) a failed actress turned ferocious Supermom, badmouths Scarlett to the others. “What kind of idiot mails St. Valentine’s Day cards to 4-year-olds at a Jewish school?” she says. “The school was pissed.”
Unlike Kumble’s previous “Hollywood” plays—sardonic comedies spotlighting male characters – “Girls Talk” features an all-female cast exploring issues important to the mommy set. Besides Scarlett and Jane, the characters include Lori Rosen (Shields) an ex-television writer who has given up her career to parent three children, and who, in the course of the play, must choose between co-chairing the school’s annual fundraiser or going back to work (meaning that her daughter may never “do” school in this town again). There’s also Claire (Constance Zimmer of “Entourage”), Lori’s former writing partner, who is trying to lure Lori back to the writers room—while fending off pitiful looks because she is fortyish and single. “If I wanted a kid that bad,” she pointedly tells the moms, I could get sperm from Marc Cherry, Darren Star and Ryan Murphy.”
“That would be a very rich gay baby,” Lori replies.
Eileen Galindo portrays Lori’s $300-versus-$700 a week nanny.
During a rehearsal break, the actresses praised Kumble: “You’ve written a play for five women, how awesome is that,” Bendewald said.
He admitted writing the all-female piece wasn’t easy. “I was nervous, but I just didn’t over think it,” he said. “I just kind of said, ‘This could go badly,’ and I showed an early draft to female friends just to see if they were going to say, ‘How dare you.’ But they said, ‘This is a solid piece of writing.’ I’m sure people could come away saying ‘God, these women are almost too masculine,’ but I’m a male writer, you know. My challenge to them is, ‘go write your play.’”
Story continues after the slideshow.
Here are further excerpts from my conversation with Kumble and the performers about satirizing their own industry, balancing work and parenthood, those dreaded pre-school applications, and more.
Naomi Pfefferman Magid: What makes “Girl’s Talk” different from, say, “The Vagina Monologues?”
Zimmer: In L.A. it’s very hard to do theater and have people come and see it, especially things that people might have seen other actors do over and over again. So there’s something very appealing about an original play by somebody whose work you know and like. And when Roger does plays, they’re not traditional plays, they’re like events. It’s something you [attend] to embrace the industry—the good, the bad and the ugly—more so the ugly that doesn’t really get shown very often.
NPM: [to Zimmer] You play the studio executive Dana Gordon on HBO’s “Entourage,” which does satirize Hollywood.
Zimmer: Yeah, but “Entourage” is even a little sugar-coated.
Shields: It’s a little ‘nice.’ Roger’s plays are edgy, but not self-aware like “OK, now we’re being edgy.” There are so few roles written for women that are complex and funny, heartbreaking and smart. We’re very often relegated to props or “The Girlfriend.” This play is not just female-centered but a very positive exploration of what it means to be a mother, trying to have a career and being told by society that we can have it all but always feeling that we’re falling short. I personally go through [these kinds of issues] on a daily basis; I left my kids this morning and they were sobbing, I don’t want to be without them but this [the play] is very important to me. When I was home, I was calling Roger every day, saying “How come you’re not writing something for me to do?” That’s the dichotomy and the push and pull you feel if you are choosing to be a mother, and what that brings.
Bendewald: People in this town love to see themselves reflected back on the stage, even if it’s not so pretty. When I did “d girl” [part of Kumble’s hilariously mordant “Hollywood” trilogy], the audiences heard how outrageous it was, and the people it resembled were the ones who were dying to see it.
NPM: Did they not “get” that the characters were supposed to be them?
Bendewald: No, I think they did get it and they loved it. I had many conversations afterwards where people would be like, “I had a boss like that.” So when I read “Girls Talk,” I had the same kind of reaction of, “Oh, that’s me, or that’s my friend, that’s my situation, I know that.”
NPM: There’s also the whole satire of the pre-school application process, and the parental hysteria that brings.
Shields: Sometimes you go, “Oh, it’s so political,” and yet [for your children] you need to find a way to play the game and play the game honestly, to the best of your ability without selling your soul, and yet knowing, “Well, I’ve got to sell something.” Naively, when I was applying to pre-schools here – we’ve since moved back to New York – there was one essay where they asked, “What can you offer the school?” So I of course launched into this in-depth essay about: a child who’s willing to learn and she’s a fresh mind and she’s energetic and stubborn and the kind of mind we’d want to shape and this is their future. But what they were looking for was a monetary amount. I talked to a girlfriend later—we didn’t get in – and she was like, “What did you answer on that question.” I [told her] and she was like, you were supposed to put a dollar value down, to say, “For the annual [fund raiser] we can give this.” That was a real awakening for me.
NPM: Even in “Entourage,” there’s that scene where the superagent, Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), is scheming to get his son into the right private school.
Kumble: Coincidentally, Doug Ellin, the creator of “Entourage,” has a daughter in my daughter’s class at her Jewish pre-school. Doug and David Schwimmer [who starred in Kumble’s play, “Turnaround”] and I all came up together. Doug’s seen “d girl” and of course I’ve seen “Entourage.” Actually our kids play together – not that I’m saying this in a name-dropping way. It’s not like I tell my daughter, “Go play, and tell them to give Daddy a job!”
Zimmer: My daughter is 3 and I’m just getting into the realization that it is such a nightmare to just try and get your child into a school. I actually got so angry and upset that I just stopped looking for a year because I was pissed off. I was going into these meetings with these people and I just thought, “Why are you interviewing me; this isn’t about me, I’m not the one coming to school here. I have an amazing child; you want my child or you don’t. So I have to come down off that ledge.
NPM: Do any of you worry that your children will never “do” school in this town again?
Bendewald: No, I think that will just be Roger (teasing). I don’t think any of us will ever have that problem. Actually the good news is his kids already are in school so he’s safe.
Paggi: I’m not a mother in real life. This [play] definitely makes me a little scared to have children.
Bendewald: The discussion about our kids is scaring you?
Paggi: The play scares me because it’s very realistic; based on what I hear my girlfriends who have children say, it all seems very true. But it’s also just so funny.
NPM: “Girls Talk” revolves around moms at a Jewish school, and there are ways in which the character of Jane, in particular, uses Judaism to undermine Scarlett, who is converting while raising her own son Jewish. Since none of you happen to be Jewish in real life, what did you make of the Jewish content and of characters trying to hurt each other in ways that had to do with their cultural identity, and the Who is a Jew issue?
Bendewald: [About Jane’s cruel behavior toward Scarlett]: I recognize her actions as a trait that exists in all of us, which is, wanting to fit in, feeling “less than,” and trying to feel better by putting yourself above someone else.
NPM: Do you think Jane is a bigot?
Bendewald: I think the part of it that is true for her is that she feels threatened, so she uses whatever she thinks will work to put this woman, Scarlett, down. I have different ammunition to use against Claire, which has nothing to do with her religion or nationality. I just use whatever someone’s weakness is.
Shields: I also think we’re not really in a culture anymore where it’s easy to find your ‘tribe’ or clan. I remember growing up feeling so much envy for my friends who were Jewish and had these families that met all the time and had rituals. My ritual growing up Irish-Catholic in Manhattan, was basically guilt on Sundays – or rather guilt all the time, and usually practicing the guilt on Sundays. And I would go to friends houses and feel, ‘Oh, this is what it is to have a history and have a family,’ because none of our relatives were around at the time.
I can see the vehemence with which one might want to fight for and keep something that is [traditional]. Whether it’s a matter of conversion or even if the logic doesn’t make sense, the innate history and the desire to hold onto something—you can see what a fire it is.
“Girls Talk” will open on Friday, March 18 and will run through Sunday, April 24 at the Lee Strasberg – Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. For tickets, call (800) 595-4849 or visit www.tix.com.