Thompson, Ross, and MacDonald are all in Fine form. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Way back in 1995, Theatre Columbus had a hit with quirky comedy The Attic, the Pearls and 3 Fine Girls, a piece created by Ann-Marie MacDonald, Leah Cherniak, Martha Ross, and Jennifer Brewin, and directed by Alisa Palmer. It chronicled the lives of the three neurotic Fine sisters: Jayne, Jojo, and Jelly (played by MacDonald, Ross, and Cherniak, respectively). Well over a decade later, the Fine sisters are back at the Tarragon Theatre in a new show involving all of the original collaborators (for personal reasons, Cherniak, who did help create the show, has pulled out of the production, and the role of Jelly is now played by Severn Thompson). But don’t worry if you missed the original production: More Fine Girls absolutely stands on its own, and is well worth the trip even for Fine neophytes.
Youngest sister Jelly is a single mom and kind of flaky conceptual artist who is planning a large-scale art installation and birthday party for her daughter in the family home. She invites her sisters to lunch in advance of the big day to discuss a few issues in their family history. Eldest sister Jojo is a stressed-out menopausal drama professor teetering on the edge of a break up with Brecht. Middle child Jayne is a lesbian dog farmer with a growing interest in New Age teas and zen philosophy that do not appear to have done much in terms of calming her down. Lunch is a hilarious disaster of awkward outbursts, misunderstandings, and poor listening skills. Jayne and Jojo, a high-strung duo who seem to feed off one another’s nervous energy, come to the conclusion that something is seriously wrong with Jelly—perhaps she’s going crazy!—and decide to move in with her for a few days to get to the bottom of things. And that’s where everything really goes bananas. As part of her art project, Jelly has removed most of the furniture from the family home, and what remains is strung up to the ceiling. As she talks about preparing for lift-off, and has occasional words with invisible aliens, we truly start to wonder whether she’s lost her mind, or whether it’s all just a severe case of artist-speak.
The physical comedy in the show is astounding. Ross is a riot, whether she’s acquiring middle-aged injuries or attempting circumnavigation of a Pilates ball. And MacDonald’s Jayne is a wonderfully lovable weirdo, ludicrously changing her voice and entire physicality in her attempts to tell a lie with a straight face. All make great use of Judith Bowden’s effective stage design, although a rather blah video screen on the upstage wall adds little to the production. But the show’s delightfully funny dialogue makes More Fine Girls a treat for the ears as much as the eyes. The sisters are constantly blurting out bizarre statements that somehow also ring true, like Jayne’s assertion that having an artist for a sister is “like having a unicorn in the family!” There are times when the mugging and one-liners starts to feel sitcommy, but in a really good Ab Fab sort of way.
That said, the show does start to run out of steam a bit by the end. It gets harder to understand why the Fine sisters are the only characters we ever see (where on earth is Jelly’s daughter?), and the sisters withhold key information from each other apparently only to prolong the drama. But we found it so refreshing to see a mostly well-realized new play that was funny, full of endearing characters, and had a discernible narrative arc, that it hardly seems fair to quibble over its flaws; we laughed through almost the entire thing. And if you find yourself needing more of the Fine sisters, here’s a tip: Tarragon and Theatre Columbus will be presenting a one-off reading of The Attic, the Pearls and 3 Fine Girls on March 26 at 2:30 p.m. featuring the original cast (including Cherniak).
More Fine Girls plays at the Tarragon Theatre until April 3.