By Will McKinley
What is it about redheaded women that makes them so funny? From the fiery sass of Katharine Hepburn to the fearless physicality of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, many of our most unforgettable ladies of laughter have been copper-topped. Add to that list the talented comic actress Amanda Ronconi, star of Shirley at the Tropicana, an entertaining one-woman farce now playing at the Access Theater in Tribeca.
Ronconi may or may not be a natural redhead only her hairdresser knows for sure. Lucille Ball wasnt, but her iconic alter ego was and, more than half a century later, she remains the standard-bearer of TV slapstick. Like Lucy Ricardo, Ronconis Shirley Johnson gets up to her red tresses in trouble in this uneven but inventive show.
Shirley at the Tropicana is the convoluted story of a tightly wound secretary in love with her unseen boss, a Latin-sounding heartbreaker named Mr. Arnaz (as in Desi, perhaps?). Shirleys master plan for marriage is interrupted by the appearance of Marilyn, a busty blonde also played by Ronconi in the breathless style of the former Norma Jeane Baker (who had auburn locks before she discovered her peroxide persona). Shirley gets drunk at an office party, gets fired, becomes a stewardess, falls in love with a Hollywood star, survives a plane crash, gets married, gets divorced, becomes a world-famous hand model and ends up meeting her destiny 20 years later in a Muzak-filled supermarket called the Tropicana.
It takes what used to be called moxie for a solo performer to attempt to embody eight different characters interwoven into such a spiderwork narrative, but Ronconi pulls it off like a trouper. Her Shirley is a treat to watch, particularly when engaged in something awkward, embarrassing or unpleasant which is most of the time. Her performance of the dreaded airplane safety speech is a particular standout, generating the loudest laughs of the evening from simple hand gestures and facial tics.
Another aspect of Shirley that works well is the integration of pre-recorded short films with the live action. The frenetic videos (by Jeff Weins) expand the boundaries of the small stage and provide a welcome respite from the occasionally confusing conceit of one woman interacting with herself. Director Joan Evans effectively weaves the live and the recorded action into an absurdist sitcom, keeping the momentum moving at screwball speed. The scenic design by Travis McHale is hilariously cheesy, with what appears to be a shower curtain hung between two pieces of cardboard standing in for an airplane cockpit.
The weak link in the creative chain is Ronconis script. Classics like I Love Lucy and The Carol Burnett Show are that perfect union of witty words and funny females, and Shirley never turns the same creative double play. The action often veers off in inexplicably odd directions, with all of the logic of a weed-scented late night improv jam. But Ronconi ultimately holds it all together, transcending the page with a keen sense for physical comedy. What makes this show worth seeing is not what Ronconi says, but how she says it.
Im not funny, Lucille Ball remarked late in her life. What I am is brave. Those of us who grew up loving Lucy might disagree with the first half of that statement. But if you doubt the second half, take a look at the complete DVD box set of Lucy that was released on the very same day I saw Shirley. Amanda Ronconi has a long way to go to match those comedic credentials, but her go-for-broke style puts her in impressive company. And the red hair certainly doesnt hurt.