Review: ‘Designing Women,’ With 30 Years of Pent-up Angst to Air
The women of Sugarbaker and Associates are ready to unload, and it’s easy to see why — the last time we heard from them was almost 30 years ago …
The women of Sugarbaker and Associates are ready to unload, and it’s easy to see why — the last time we heard from them was almost 30 years ago, when the hit sitcom “Designing Women” went off the air. That’s a lot of time to keep things bottled up. But now Julia, Suzanne and Mary Jo are back (Charlene is mostly on break), and reigniting the flame of Southern-style sisterhood in a new play.
You read that right: “new” and “play.”
With a few exceptions like “The Addams Family” and “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical,” most TV-to-stage adaptations tend to be spoofs, more or less authorized — think “Bayside! The Musical!” and drag versions of “The Golden Girls.”
The “Designing Women” premiere production at TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Ark. — a capture of which is now streaming — is the work of the TV series’ creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. And it is a freshly baked script, not a few old story lines stitched together. The Atlanta ladies are not flashing their signature big clothes and big hair because the play takes place in 2020. Our gals have barely aged, though, making the project less a sequel than a reboot. (Why should Batman and Spider-Man be the only ones who get to repeatedly reinvent themselves?)
Set around the time of last year’s presidential election, “Designing Women” feels as if Bloodworth-Thomason has revived her intellectual property for the sole purpose of getting a lot of anger and frustration off her chest. The show (directed by her husband, Harry Thomason) trades plot for a series of scenes that are merely vehicles for a barrage of references to every other hot-button issue, catchphrase or triggering (to liberals) event of the Trump era, including and certainly not limited to voter suppression efforts, covfefe, sexual harassment, QAnon, Covid-19, boat parades and, of course, Donald J. Trump.
The play is set in motion — so to speak, because, again, no plot — when everybody’s favorite interior-design firm welcomes a new receptionist, Haley McFee (slapstick whiz Kim Matula). She is the baby sister of Charlene Frazier (Debra Capps) but most important, she is a well-intentioned naïf whose Christian beliefs don’t quite match the lefty politics of Julia Sugarbaker (Carmen Cusack) and her associates Mary Jo Shively (Sarah Colonna) and Cleo Bouvier (Carla Renata).
The new employee is particularly taken aback by Cleo, an outspoken Black lesbian who is a cousin of one of the original characters, Anthony Bouvier. “Her number one hobby is going to be praying for me not to burn in hell,” Cleo says of Haley. “Because it’s the number one hobby for all evangelicals. It’s like their golf.”
Ba-dum-bump. And there is a lot more where that came from, as the play is made up almost exclusively of jokes — and since Bloodworth-Thomason does not have to deal with CBS prudes anymore, she can use all the profanity and sexual single entendres she wants. The sheer quantity of wisecracks means that quite a few of them land, with Renata and an excellent Amy Pietz (as Julia’s self-absorbed, vain sister, Suzanne) making especially tasty meals of them.
There are also some amusing bits of physical comedy, including during the scenes between Julia and an anti-Trump Republican by the name of Wynn Dollarhyde (R. Ward Duffy) — their romance is similar to the hot-and-heavy relationship between the outspoken liberal Diane Lockhart and the silver-fox conservative Kurt McVeigh on “The Good Wife.”
Still, the pacing, or lack thereof, is a problem, especially for those of us streaming at home, without the company of laughing strangers provided by a theater. The show is uncomfortably overlong at two and a half hours — definitely not sitcom length — and sags when it should zip. Bloodworth-Thomason might be able to achieve a tidier running time if she writes a sequel set under a less willfully inflammatory president.
Through Oct. 24 at TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Ark.; digital streaming through Oct. 24; theatre2.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.