Theater Review: There Are Plenty of Laughs Left in Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy's Sketch Comedy in Parallel Lives | Arts

Theater Review: There Are Plenty of Laughs Left in Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy's Sketch Comedy in Parallel Lives


Parallel Lives
Through Saturday, Jul. 7
Burning Coal Theatre, Raleigh

If our culture has moved beyond the reductive view that feminism isn’t funny, Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy had something to do with it. A generation before the likes of Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, the pair parlayed its brand of sharp sketch comedy, interwoven with serious social observations, into a celebrated West Coast stage show in the eighties. An Obie-winning off-Broadway production and subsequent HBO specials made them an early-nineties staple on Comedy Central.

Parallel Lives, whose Women’s Theatre Festival production closes this weekend at Burning Coal Theatre, celebrates the pair's work in a refreshing two-act revue of their greatest bits. In her regional debut, director Judy Long deftly guides actors Keith Liles and Emily Levinstone through a comic gauntlet of thirty-one different characters. In the “Period Piece” sketch, a mockery of feminine hygiene ads morphs into a still-hot take imagining those same commercials aimed at men, before a second-act Shakespeare send-up enhanced by Judy McCord’s gender-bending costumes.

The laughs grow more pensive when Annette and Gina, two fifteen-year-old innocents on a sleepover, ponder first-time realizations about love and sex after watching West Side Story on TV, and more pensive still as we contemplate the fixed orbits of two lonely Texas barflies, Hank and Karen Sue, and two women’s long-term wrestling matches with Catholicism in “God.”

But the heart of Parallel Lives beats strongest in the loving, loopy takes on Sylvia and Maddie, two sixty-something retirees whose hearts of gold and imperfect hearing leave them scattering memorable malapropisms through their women’s studies classes.

Thirty years after this show's premiere, some of the jokes and premises inevitably seem dated, even with judicious updates in topical social references. It’s also unfortunate that Long cut the work’s most challenging sequence, set in an abortion clinic, out of concerns about the depiction of gun violence. Still, the humor is plentiful and generous in a work that invites us to consider how these lives still parallel our own.

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