Arts & Culture

Though likable, '5 Women' stumbles

American Beauty" and HBO's "Six Feet Under" sealed writer Alan Ball's reputation for probing the dysfunctional family with darkly biting humor.

"5 Women Wearing the Same Dress," a play he wrote six years before "Beauty" hit the screen, displays similar traits but lacks the dramatic acumen of those award-winning works.

After a socialite wedding in Knoxville, Tenn., five identically clad bridesmaids collect in the bride's sister's bedroom before the reception, each escaping a particular plight.

Ungainly Meredith, the bride's sister, rebels against her mother's demand that she follow in her sibling's footsteps. Overweight Georgeanne bemoans her dead-end marriage. Successful businesswoman Mindy smarts from relatives' disapproval of her being a lesbian. Perky Francis, virginal and devoutly religious, struggles with her urges toward a cute bartender. Beautiful Trisha, the most experienced and most jaded, flees unwanted advances from Tripp, a handsome usher ready for action.

For two acts, the women chat about clothes and makeup, share intimate secrets and indulge in a lot of male bashing. Ball sprinkles in many funny insights and touches on universal situations, but this 1993 work shows a writer in training, greatly influenced by the sitcom.

There is virtually no plot, and the collection of short scenes crams in too many unconnected and often unmotivated crises and revelations. Ball unsuccessfully mixes one-liners and physical comedy with bluntly sobering scenes about abortion, AIDS, child abuse and drug use. These heavy subjects seem interjected for "relevance," as they are quickly dismissed for the next round of light comedy moments.

In Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy's production, director Kristen Coury's likable, experienced cast helps cover some of the script's problems.

Leading the pack is Jennifer Laine Williams' sophisticated, multilayered Trisha, whose blase rejection of relationships is belied by her obvious searching for love.

Ball and Coury don't allow the other actresses to fully shake off stereotypes, but all contribute acceptably individual characters.

Mary Guiteras gives Georgeanne's matter-of-fact earthiness sympathetic warmth, Kerry Ann Lambert makes Mindy's wisecracks hit their marks, and Emily Labelle shows the dangerous vulnerability underneath Francis' seemingly unshakable faith. Athena Marie Reaves clomps around convincingly as rebellious, bitter Meredith but has trouble with the overly dramatic revelation of a shameful secret.

Ball's biggest misstep is bringing on Tripp in the last moments of an already overly long second act. His extended seduction scene with Trisha is awkwardly written, and it brings the proceeding to a grinding halt, though Ira David Wood IV and Williams try their best to overcome its contradictions.

Taken as a "Steel Magnolias" imitation, the production is an amusing diversion for an August evening. While men in the audience will have to take a certain amount of heat, women will certainly nod approval to much of the behind-closed-doors dialogue. Just don't expect the polish and depth of Ball's more famous creations.