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Black Widows

A play proves that not all little old ladies are nice

Babs Dentz and Ann Mainolfi are all about the Benjamins.

By Ashlea Browning | Posted 7/16/2010

Black Widows

By Susan Middaugh

Through July 25 in the Marian B. Copeland Theatre, LeClerc Hall at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland

You’re going to want to leave early for this one, unless you’re very familiar with the College of Notre Dame campus, because this "theater" isn’t exactly easy to find. It’s tucked away in what probably used to be an old classroom that has been renovated into a stage with about 40 not-so-comfortable seats (especially for a play that’s more than two hours long) and lighting and sound systems. But what you’ll get, once you find it, is a funny story about the lengths people will go to for money.

Susan Middaugh’s entry into the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, Black Widows is about two elderly women who make a living stealing money, credit cards, jewelry, and any other personal belongings they deem valuable out of people’s hotel rooms. As they’re divvying up the proceeds from one job, the two watch as a homeless man is hit by a car while panhandling. Vera (Ann Mainolfi) suggests that they could make a lot more benefiting from a life insurance policy than they make doing the hotel jobs. Gwen (Babs Dentz) initially dismisses the idea, but Vera can be quite convincing.

Vera is actually a very-well off Russian immigrant who made bank off of her late husband, yet she is always after more. Not-so-well-off Gwen is very envious of Vera’s wealth, a fact Vera uses to her advantage. She enlists Gwen to start working at a local soup kitchen to meet potential candidates for their life insurance scam. Their criteria includes mild health problems but nothing serious enough that he wouldn’t get coverage; no family, to ensure that there will be no one else trying to benefit from the policy; and he has to, of course, be homeless.

Once they’ve found their guy, John (Glenn Vitale), a homeless alcoholic with a bum leg from the Vietnam War, they pitch the idea to him. Vera, acting as a wealthy and recently Christian woman who wants to do something to help the homeless, will provide him with a tiny apartment to live in rent-free to get him off the streets. The only stipulation is that he must keep the place clean and he must sign an insurance policy, naming the two as beneficiaries.

Given a place to live, however, John starts to turn his life around--much to Vera and Gwen's chagrin--within the two years the policy must be held before it can be cashed in. He sobers up, is starting a new job, and is scheduled to get his leg fixed through the V.A. when Vera starts becoming impatient that he has not passed yet. She ends up taking matters into her own hands. When a detective (Mike Ware) starts sniffing around, the bonds of dysfunctional friendship are tested.

Vera and Gwen’s bickering provides much of the funny in this dark comedy—they shoot barbs back and forth in a thick Russian accent and even thicker New York accent. Middaugh’s script does a nice job playing off the women’s advancing years. When Gwen is being interrogated by Detective Goodman she insists she is a good woman. “Didn’t you giggle me?” she yells at him. “You know, on the internet.”

Goodman provides a more serious and compassionate role in the story--he works on skid row in order to help the homeless. And Vitale’s character, John, has a way of making you feel sympathetic toward him even in the beginning when he’s just a drunken bum with a bad attitude. Both Mainolfi and Dentz struggled, at times, to get through the over two-hour long play, but they made their line stumbles seem conversational.

The play has been rewritten and revised numerous times since Middaugh got the idea for it back in 2005 from a similar incident reported in The Baltimore Sun

. The current production is a good evening out if you’re looking for a few dark laughs in a low-key environment.

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