It seems only fair to point out that David and Amy Sedaris, the brother and sister who write plays under the name the Talent Family, aren't the first people to couch welfare reform in the terms of an idealistic 1930's movie. That distinction belongs to Newt Gingrich, who famously suggested that Hillary Clinton watch "Boys Town" to learn something about the virtues of orphanages.
But even Mr. Gingrich couldn't hope to emulate the manic verve of the Sedarises' "One Woman Shoe," a slashingly funny slums-to-stardom yarn at La Mama E.T.C. Besides, Mr. and Ms. Sedaris are obviously thinking more about other Mickey Rooney movies, the kind in which Mickey, with the stalwart assistance of Judy Garland, learned that putting on a show can provide a heaven-sent means of paying debts and bringing enemies together.
Mr. Sedaris, an essayist and radio commentator, and Ms. Sedaris, a seasoned comedy performer, have a unique gift for melding the stuff of contemporary headlines into loopy pastiches of America's most beloved forms of entertainment, from vintage MGM and Warner Brothers musicals to television movies of the week about plucky misfits beating the odds. This is, after all, a play that features the line, "Hey, kid, you're going in for food stamps, but you're coming back a star!"
What results is a skewed world view that reflects the naive, tenacious optimism that this country has never been able to forsake. It's really only one ironic degree removed from tabloids like The Star and The National Enquirer, with their combination of gritty prurience and miracle cures for cancer.
And while the play is steeped in a bone-deep cynicism, its five-member cast (each plays multiple roles) infuses the production with an enthusiasm and energy that seems, well, purely American. In the ever-expanding constellation of camp, the Talent Family has discovered its own perversely patriotic planet.
"Shoe" doesn't achieve the depraved heights of "Stitches," the Sedarises' work of last year about a disfigured teen-ager who becomes a television star. But as directed by Mick Napier, it's a tighter and more consistently funny play that, unlike its predecessor, doesn't seem to labor for shock effects.
"Shoe" tells what happens when four welfare recipients learn that, under a new Government program, they are going to have to start earning their money. While the "women of color," we are told, have been assigned the task of grooming border collies, the play's central characters, white women who live in a shoe-shaped subsidized housing project, must learn to perform one-woman shows.
Overseeing all this is Phillip Scaldwell (David Rakoff), a patronizing civil servant and gay culture vulture who suggests a cross between Clifton Webb and one of those irritatingly well-groomed salesmen from Barney's. He makes his clients dress up in clownlike sweatsuits and imitates their blue-collar lingo with a withering drawl.
Complicating matters is the fact that the leader of the Hubbard Terrace tenants association, the annoyingly didactic Bobbi (Ms. Sedaris), is really Barbara Sheridan, a blue-blooded former golf champion who, at 58, has left her parents' mansion to go on welfare and discover herself. (This is over the objections of her mother, played by Sarah Thyre, who visits Bobbi on horseback with sackfuls of gold.)
Phillip has problems with his own mother (Jodi Lennon), a scrambled-brained society matron (she's given to spouting non sequiturs like, "Call the embassy and have them ship the olives by plane") and with his aggressive frustrated-actress of a secretary (Jackie Hoffman). But by the evening's end, Bobbi and her friends will learn valuable lessons about self-esteem, and Phillip will thaw into a real human being who can see his reflection in a butter knife without flinching.
"Shoe" is chock-full of references to all manner of topical phenomena, from Kafkaesque bureaucracy to shoddy airline safety standards. But it would be a mistake to try to follow it as a point-by-point satire.
It is, instead, an absurdist swirl of parodistic styles that evoke everything from the "Rain in Spain" sequence of "My Fair Lady" to B-movie heartbreak monologues. (My favorite ends with the line, "Sometimes all it takes is one little clock radio to bring it all down.") The Sedarises' gift for ridiculous nomenclature (the Varicose Avenue Radio Shanty, a maid named Clymidia) can rival Joe Orton's. And all of the women get a chance to soar into twisted star-turn moments, with Mr. Rakoff's droll, impeccably sustained performance providing the necessary anchor.
The show isn't without dead spots. Some of the foul-mouthed insult debates go flat, and much of performance art is so ludicrous to begin with that it is almost impossible to parody.
But you wouldn't want "Shoe" to be much slicker than it is. A lot of its charm lies in its knowing, ingenious use of bargain-basement production values, nicely embodied in Hugh Hamrick's crude, comic-strip-panel sets. And the show's theme song, the work of Ms. Hoffman, tinkles throughout in a deliberately amateurish piano arrangement that evokes every bad uplifting musical of the 1970's.
Darned, though, if you don't leave the theater humming the tune. This production may be sending up our venerable show-biz cliches, but it also knows exactly how to use them to hook an audience.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company