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Photograph by James Kasyan

Girl Talk

Sexual confusion is laid bare at Palo Alto's Dragon Theatre in 'A Girl's Guide to Chaos'

By Ben Marks

IN CYNTHIA HEIMEL'S A Girl's Guide to Chaos, now playing at the Dragon Theatre in Palo Alto, the actors speak mostly in pithy aphorisms, delivering lectures and confessionals to the audience and each other in emphatic, unanswerable monologues. Sit down and shut up: Class is in session. The play begins with Cyndi Lauper's anthem to post-feminist female empowerment, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." The song blares as the actors take the stage, then fades as three women (do they really want to be called "girls?") take their places before us in the dark. These are our guides, although we won't be formally introduced until midway through the first act. The scene is Los Angeles, late 1980s, early 1990s.

There's Cynthia (Magenta Brooks), who enjoys pot and Valium and writes a column about sex, women and relationships for a local paper. (In case you're wondering, Heimel's Chaos was published in 1991; Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City, with its similar cast of characters, didn't see print until 1997.) Over here is Cleo (Lorie Goulart), a tightly wound scientist whose identity is all wrapped up in the conflict between her professed ability to do without men and her secret desire to find a man who will sweep her off her feet and not take "no" for an answer. As for Rita (Kim Saunders), she's a tough kick in the pants from Texas, with big hair and a mouth to match. They are good, dear friends who like to get together at a favorite restaurant, which has its very own sassy New York–accented waitress (Denise Berumen). She joins the rest of the women in sharing secrets and obsessions, one of which is men.

It's not all surface—Heimel doles out just enough depth to keep us from dismissing her characters entirely. But it's pretty thin gruel: Paranoia is nothing but self-punishment. We are all deeply protective of our sexual property. Isn't it funny how nobody likes to see anybody happy? Experts are people who have something to hide. Lost in all that cleverness, of course, are the subtler truths that live on either side of such absolute statements. All experts, everywhere, have something to hide? No wonder Cynthia is so paranoid, and no wonder the Bill Starr–directed cast keeps, for the most part, to the surface, too.

Then there are the men, all of whom are played by Noel Wood. I particularly liked his L.A. schmoozer, with his sports coat rolled up to the elbows. Nice touch. But isn't it sort of weird when a rubber-faced male actor is more interesting to watch than three attractive women in flattering clothing talking in appreciative detail about oral sex? In the end, the biggest problem with Chaos is that Heimel's monologues feel out of date and beside the point. For example, I cannot imagine the women in Knocked Up speaking to each other in such lame strings of platitudes. Their frustrations with men were funny precisely because they felt real. Heimel's characters are cartoons by comparison.

A GIRL'S GUIDE TO CHAOS plays, a Dragon Productions presentation, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm, through Aug. 9 at the Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto. Tickets are $16–$20. (650.493.2006)

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