When HBO and Comedy Central’s Lauren Weedman decided to take her comedic sensibilities to the jailhouse and teach a writing workshop, her good intentions were tinged with a sense of noblesse oblige, as Weedman herself would be the first to admit. But we all know where good intentions lead. Rather than teach a writing course, Weedman winds up becoming what’s known as a volunteer advocate. Any idealism she may have felt at the start will take a sharp turn toward realism.
By the time we’ve been whizzed through the emotional roller-coaster ride of her one-woman show at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4, and the lives of dozens of disparate characters who spring movingly or hilariously to life in her portrayals — from inmates and staff at the Los Angeles County women’s jail, to the editor at Glamour magazine – — the words have taken on new meanings. The obligation remains; the hell’s not far behind. But the nobility has changed hands.
The stage is almost bare but for a red metal staircase on wheels and a small black wheeled stool, which Weedman will use to propel herself and her characters through the stories they tell.
Bust — the title’s a triple play on a woman’s bust, “getting busted”, and“busting out of jail” — begins with the resolutely multi-tasking, but hopelessly disorganized Weedman, in black slacks and white tank top with cranberry straps peeking out at the shoulder, cellphone in hand, lamenting to a friend her poor social skills at a recent event. Confidently and sympathetically directing a man who asks where the food stamp office is, she resumes her conversation, only to realize with chagrin that she’s sent him in the wrong direction. Here Weedman could be us; her bumbling good will and embarrassment immediately invite us to follow her, to be on her side, to make allowances for her as we would for ourselves.
She is determined “to do something that’s not about me. But if I do lose weight while I’m doing this,” the tiny actress adds, knowing it will ring a bell with most of us out there, “that’s OK.” She succeeds — at least at the first part, if bringing thousands of theatergoers from one end of the country to another into the lives of people they otherwise wouldn’t think twice about, counts — in spades.
Weedman, a sort of Anna Deveare Smith on speed, leads us through an unapologetic, warts-and-all (“maybe at a jail,” she tells her analyst, “that’s one place I can feel better than everyone else”) diary of a do-gooder, via a series — no, that sounds too neat – rather, a masterful aggregation of characterizations, all done without a single change of costume and flying so fast and furious, you’ll soon wish the program had a cast list.
The first is the woman who instructs the volunteers, a suburban mom (“We’ll find something to throw over you when you go in,” she finally tells one well-endowed recruit, fixing a gimlet eye on the spangled, low-cut blouse she has just drily described) who chides Lauren for not paying attention (“Lauren, are you writing? Oh, OK. OK”) and sternly warns everyone what not to do at the jailhouse.
Assessing her team much like an elementary-school gym teacher who knows her options are limited, the instructor asks them to tell their fellow volunteers who they are and why they’re there. Here, Weedman’s face registers an ill-concealed scorn tempered by a dour resignation as Tammy (remember: also Weedman), a self-described “stay-at-home mom,” lightheartedly admits that she’s both bored and boring, blithely confesses that she both loves and hates her husband and kids, and concludes with a gung-ho demonstration of a mock-throttle and a laugh whose empty inanity brings a calculated, but almost imperceptible change of expression to the instructor’s eyes. Weedman is wonderful here, effortlessly switching between two utterly opposite characters, literally in the blink of an eye.
On the other end of the scale is the seventyish reading teacher who taught “literacy skills” to “the girls,” but has been away since one of her recruits was killed in one of the jails. “But I’m back!” she asserts with a quietly courageous pride, Weedman’s entire being, with tremulous voice, stooped stature, and blazing eyes, incarnating the indomitable integrity of this determined small force.
The prisoners and the guards are as individual, and as fiercely human, as the volunteers. But they have so much more at stake. Rule #1, an earnest guard tells her matter-of-factly, Weedman segueing from one to the other with the seeming ease of flicking a switch, is “kindness is weakness.” Rule #2? “Know the culture,” which amounts more or less to “watch your back,” illustrated by a nasty cache of sharp objects of all shapes and sizes he’s taken from prisoners — and a tiny bible removed from . . . let’s just say, a place where the sun doesn’t shine.
For Weedman, the sun will shine in an unwelcome way. A properly snotty Glamour magazine editor calls — the lighting on Weedman now turns to an oh-so-fashionable fuchsia — telling her they want to use her story about feeling rejected by everyone in college and having lied to her boyfriend by telling him she’d been raped, her sole intent to gain some sympathy. Of course she realized it was wrong, she tells the editor, but she just felt so crappy she was desperate, and hopes it can be a lesson for others in similar situations, and that the Glamour people can come up with a title they like better than hers.
They do. When the article is published, the undeniably eye-catching title is “I lied about being raped.” Message boards light up, Weedman tells us with a relative calm that can only come from the distance of time (the article was published in July 2005), and she was verbally pilloried by just about everyone from feminists to church ladies to men who take it personally. She, meanwhile, has to attempt not to take it personally, to focus not on herself, but on the women she is there to help. And the pain they’ve suffered — and caused — is so much greater than anything Weedman can even imagine.
Gina, serving time for prostitution, is vociferous, demanding — here again Weedman slips in and out of character so quickly you’re almost convinced you’re seeing two people — and yet without malice: it’s as if she expects to be served. And the innocent Weedman is easy prey, giving her address in a misguided attempt to prove their solidarity (and neatly breaking Rule #1). Verna, an anguished mother whose little girl saw her taken away “and now every time she hears a siren, she thinks they’re coming for her,” is another superb characterization, blubbering tears of heartbreak reflected by Weedman in a face, wide-eyed and elongated, that could have been painted by one of the Old Masters.
Weedman herself is a young master of characterization. And while by its nature, the show is serious and at times bleak, it’s also leavened by humor; my favorite character may be the staffer who insists in a loud, slow, grating monotone that grows louder, slower and more penetrating each time Weedman accidentally hits the buzzer: “Get your finger off the buzzer.”
As the show came to an end and the audience applauded and cheered, bringing Weedman out for a second round of applause, she smiled happily and then, with a gesture of her hands that seemed half joking and half serious, encouraged us to give her a standing ovation. I waited for someone to be the first; if I had been there solely as a spectator, I would have, and I have no doubt others would have followed. I have a feeling Weedman minded much less, if at all, than she would have before her prison experience. “Some people think the show is just about bad women, or bad people,” she told The Washington Post, “instead of thinking: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”
Bust runs thru Dec 18, 2011 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW Washington, DC.
Written and performed by Lauren Weedman
Directed by Allison Narver
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
Running Time: About 2 hours with no intermission