In droll contrast is a giant, back-projected ad from the 1930s or '40s: a pretty, smiling young housewife has paused while making a cake; her mischievous, adorable, little daughter is surreptitiously licking the spoon.
A woman's voice, thick with deadpan irony, welcomes the audience to "The Good Wife's Guide" from Housekeeping Monthly, 1931: "Have dinner ready, prepare yourself, be fresh-looking, clear away the clutter, prepare the children, minimize all noise, be happy to see him, listen to him (remember his topics of conversation are more important than yours), make him comfortable, take off his shoes, be a little gay."
This catalogue of wifely duties is accompanied by back projections of that seminal breakthrough in tract housing: Levittown.
All this is hilarious. And the laughter it evokes is not merely laughter at the silliness of bygone mass consumer idealism. We laugh as well at the familiarity of an absurd self-help agenda forever with us in the lifestyle pages of our daily newspaper.
When the woman offstage steps through the door, however, our laughter catches in our throats. She also is a study in black and red. She is slim, attractive, stylish in a tight, slit red skirt and platform shoes. Her black hair is pulled into a sort-of bun. She is drinking a mixed drink and smoking a cigarette. She is unsteady on her pins. The laughter is hers alone now -- a humorless laughter that rolls out of her, inviting us to share in the wit and bitterness of her collapse. But laughing along with this woman would be like going on a binge with an alcoholic friend who has been diagnosed with cirrhosis. Self-help has transmogrified into self-destruction. The constant is "self." An obsession with the self.
Dominating the woman is a phantom vision of herself, for the back projections have changed radically since her entrance. Instead of satirical glimpses of suburbia, we see dreamlike images of the woman, forever repeating the same vaguely troubling gestures -- most of which have to do with a fur coat on a coat rack. In one sequence, the woman finally approaches the coat and puts it on. We have moved into some dark interior realm.
The woman, we know from the playbill, is Anne Sexton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who committed suicide (after several attempts) in 1974. Sexton is an angry lady -- a point emphasized in the show by a huge, weirdly shaped scimitar with which she repeatedly stabs the stage, as though it were the breast of her unspoken nemesis (perhaps herself). What she is angry about remains unclear. Woman's conventional role, particularly the suburban housewife's role, is certainly part of it. "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" (the typically defiant title of one of her poems) could be substituted for the Good Wife's Guide as a voice-over of the Levittown images -- and the results would be nearly the same in terms of irony and humor. But, after all, there are less drastic escapes from Levittown than letting your car run in a closed garage. And we get hints of deeper, more volcanic layers of psychic disturbance having to do with Sexton's father and incest.
But, Shortes -- in a remarkably poised, intense and compelling performance -- gives us the mood and feeling of the woman, much as a dancer might. She tells us little of Sexton's life. It was only in a conversation with the actress after the show that I learned the fur coat in the projection was Sexton's mother's coat and that she put it on in order to kill herself in it.
The adage "Leave them wanting more" is one of the great truths of theater. Rarely have I seen it obeyed to a fault. But White Sauce and Diaper Babies is the exception that proves the rule. With its scant 45 minutes of playing time, the play did not do justice to its fascinating subject or its charismatic actress. I eagerly look forward to Anne Sexton: The Real Story! by Diane Shortes.