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Burning in the Spotlight

A Clichéd, Self-Indulgent Monologist Defends Herself

No Soap: Will someone please tell Karen Gray to hit the showers?

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 10/23/2002

Eleven Ex-Boyfriends Defend Their Actions

Karen Gray

Thank God someone has finally written a play about a neurotic woman and her romantic foibles. Hey, did you know that men like breasts and sports and have problems with fidelity, or that women sometimes feel anxious about whether or not they'll ever get married? Karen Gray's groundbreaking one-woman show Eleven Ex-Boyfriends Defend Their Actions covers these issues in all their stereotypical, played-out glory. I guess it's funny if you like that sort of thing.

The audience at Theatre Project certainly did. When Gray took her final bow, applause thundered through the theater and smug married women in pearl stud earrings walked out of the theater discussing which single friends they were going to recommend the show to. "Caroline's single"--giggle--"She'll love it." And despite my distaste for talking to strangers in paisley scarves, I was deeply tempted to tell them that, actually, not all single women like watching their ilk portrayed as man-centric nut jobs.

Not that the play is without its charms. Comedian Gray, whose cat's-eye glasses and comically pinched expression make her look like the Church Lady's swinging younger sister, is an engaging goofball with the energy of a 2-year-old who has gotten into the Halloween candy. And she morphs easily into a variety of characters, from her exes to a bizarre telegram singer. Unfortunately, the characters that she chooses to portray don't break any new ground. Boyfriend No. 2 is a messed-up musician, Boyfriend No. 4 is a cheating breast man, No. 10 is really into sports, and No. 11 fantasizes about other women. Populated by these uninspired oversimplifications, Gray's tale, no matter how energetic, falls flat.

The play begins with "Pop Goes the Weasel" playing beneath the sound of children's laughter. Gray enters and walks around the cartoonish cut-out pastel chairs that make up the set, likening the search for a mate to a game of musical chairs. She then takes the audience on a remarkably vivid, if overwhelmingly clichéd, tour of her romantic history, jumping back and forth in time and adding heavy doses of surrealism. A psychotic singing telegram from the Society at Large Society informs her that there are no husbands left, and when a boyfriend freaks out because he realizes she's had other lovers, the situation is covered by the Slut News Network live from her bed. And when she portrays Boyfriend No. 5, the blow-job drill sergeant, complete with Patton hat and crop, I thought the guys in front of me were going to have seizures, they were laughing so hard.

Despite the play's name, the ex-boyfriends don't really get to defend themselves that much. The sports freak's only response is bellowing over and over again that he was stolen from a perfectly good girlfriend. The dreaded Breast Meister gets the best retort, wielding the word "supportive"--as in what Gray wasn't--like a cross against a vampire.

In fact, Gray spends most of the time defending herself. On top of portraying the majority of her exes as hopeless buffoons, she explains away her failed relationships by suggesting that she was just too much for those guys. Apparently, what men want--and these are the cream of Gray's dating crop, mind you--are women who let the man take center stage while they act as his enthusiastic audience. Gray, as a comedian, however, is unable to relinquish being the show herself, and therefore can't find a meaningful relationship. Despite this glum and highly suspect hypothesis, she ends the play on an oddly optimistic if unoriginal note. She will eventually find the man of her dreams, and he will love her for who she really is, and gee isn't it neat that there is someone out there for everyone despite everything she said for the last two hours.

The whole thing left me wondering what has happened to complex, capable single female characters. In the Elizabethan era when women had few rights, Shakespeare cranked out some kick-ass ladies. In the early 1800s, Jane Austen's heroines worried about keeping their families together, and they worried about getting married only when they found someone worth spending their lives with. Now, in a time when women can really do anything, we're stuck with preposterous basket cases like Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal, and Carrie Bradshaw, women so off-kilter without a man they can barely walk into a room without falling over. Do we really need to add Karen Gray to this list?

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