The story of a small-town girl trying to make it on Broadway is not an unfamiliar one. It’s not only rather boring, but it’s also rooted in 1930s mainstream culture, in which women are perceived one-dimensionally.
“Dames at Sea,” a production of San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon, tries to subvert this overworked genre through cliche 1930s costumes, kitschy acting and saccharine dialogue. Though meant to be a work of parody, the piece misses the mark — its subversion isn’t extreme enough to seem purposeful and truly satirical.
Throughout the play, the audience hears lines such as, “What does any girl want?” (from Ruby, who is asking her love interest to propose to her) and, “We need frilly skirts to boost our morale” (from two sailors in the Navy). In instances such as these, “Dames at Sea” is overtly trying to demystify the idea that women only care about marriage. But in 2018, when the daily struggle for women is so much more nuanced and complex, this is a one-dimensional idea not worth satirizing. Thus, while the intentions of the play are in the right place, the arguments it makes are shallow.
The play has but six characters who are trying to produce a play on Broadway. Ruby (Lauren Meyer), arrives onstage doe-eyed and with a suitcase in hand, expecting to make it on “the big stage.” Mona (Ashley Cowl), is the diva who has already achieved fame and who bosses everyone around.
Both of these characters are enamored with a sailor named Dick (Jeffrey Scott Parsons) and go to extreme measures to win his favor. One of the key songs in the musical is “Raining in My Heart,” which Ruby sings when she is heartbroken over Dick — whom she met that same day. Ruby’s heartbreak is then immediately cured by Dick’s spontaneous marriage proposal. While the play intends for these lavish acts to be amusing, they end up being closer to cringe-worthy.
The pitfalls of “Dames at Sea” are its script and its plot, not its acting. It is clear that the actors are intentionally acting with cheesy expression and jerky movements to convey satire. Credit must be given to them for their initiative and attempts to make the best of the dialogue and songs. Still, if the audience doesn’t know beforehand that the piece is a parody, it is unclear whether the satire is apparent.
The play seems to become the very outdated art that it is mocking. Not only does the play lack diversity with its all-white cast, but it also runs about two hours in length and fails to subvert the plot in any way. “Dames at Sea” follows a stereotypical line of events: girl comes to big city, struggles to make it onstage, finds a boy to marry, makes it to Broadway, marries the boy, and they live happily ever after.
And today, we’re past talking about why this series of events is problematic — the need to subvert 1930s culture and traditional marriage is gone. So if we’re asking, “What does any girl want?” there is a bigger need to understand the nuances of answers that “Dames at Sea” fails to address — how are women treated in their workplaces, how are their reproductive rights politicized, and how could their intellects be appreciated more?