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Robrt Pela: Review Of 'At Wit’s End' From The Arizona Theatre Company

"Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End" isn't so much a play as a collection of zippy one-liners lifted directly from the writing of the popular newspaper columnist and best-selling humorist, who died in 1996.

Playwright sisters Allison and Margaret Engel haven't so much fashioned a story here as they have created a timeline the borrows wholesale from Bombeck’s many essays about motherhood, housewifery and the place of women in contemporary culture. It seems churlish to reprimand the Engels for bombing so badly when in fact they didn't really write a play at all. If there’s a Tony for stringing together someone else's work into a cohesive story, they would certainly quality for a nomination, although this show isn't getting anywhere near Broadway, so never mind.

Erma herself is lost in the Engels’ bid for laughs, but those laughs — at least on the night I was there, when the Herberger Theater sat half empty — came only as knowing chuckles from people who agreed with Erma’s wry assessment that motherhood was hard and the world was a wearying place to live in. Only a single joke about the Titanic was met with true hilarity. Insert reference to sinking ships here.

The warm chuckles came in response to once-zingy one-liners like “If you don’t stop crossing your eyes, they’ll stick that way” and “Women shop with more care for a bathing suit than for a husband” and “Writing a column was what I could do. I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security, and too tired for an affair.”

The absence of Mrs. Bombeck — a beloved local figure who lived in Phoenix for decades, a fact ignored in the Engels' scrawny script — is unfortunate and, in an hour-long play all about her, also absurd.

Equally confusing is the choice to drag Erma's husband, children and neighbors into the story. In a one-woman show, that means the unfortunate actress stranded here is left wise-cracking to thin air — although in this case, it’s thin air with its own offstage sound loop, a device that makes this sad stage trick seem sadder still.

Affable and demure, Jeanna Paulsen does what she can with this recitation of Mrs. Bombeck’s aging punchlines. But she can’t rescue this limp waste of time, which fails to make anything of Bombeck’s bid for feminist credibility or tell us anything at all, really, about the woman herself.

This play, if that's what you'll call it, does do this: It proves that Arizona Theatre Company, having recently been rescued from collapse by generous private financiers, is determined to squander its salvation. Its season-opener was an unsubtle sitcom, and this tribute to Erma Bombeck is an artless throw-away, fit perhaps for an upstart community playhouse but not worthy of our once-dependable and formerly impressible state theater.

Robrt Pela's reviews appear in the Phoenix New Times.