“Put on your leggings,” Rosie O’Donnell tells Carol Kane, as mother to daughter, near the beginning of the play “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”; The daughter has a tantrum. “If you don’t, you know what will happen,” the mother scolds, “you’ll get polio.”
The audience laughs.
“You can’t imagine how many ways there were to get polio; you could get it from swimming pools and drinking water, and, most terrifying of all, from swallowing a fly,” Kane adds, to another wave of laughter.
Times have changed since O’Donnell, Kane and three other actresses gave a one-night only reading in 2017 of Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron’s popular play at the 92nd Street Y. The Y recorded the evening, and is now presenting it nightly on its website through May 25th as a fundraiser.
But if we have been thrust suddenly into a radically different era, the resurrection of this decade-old play about women and fashion turns out to be a surprisingly good fit. This is not just because the play works fine online it was designed as a mostly discrete series of monologues by a group of women sitting in chairs, reading from music stands, with no scenery, and everybody wearing black. (“Can we stop pretending that anything is ever going to be ‘the new black,'” Rosie O’Donnell says in the show.) The reason it feels timely is deeper than that.
Fashion figures in almost all the stories told over the 90 minutes of the play, and is central to the characters’ sense of self.
The play’s origins explain why. “ Love, Loss and What I Wore” began as a first book written and illustrated by Ilene Beckerman, who was then 60 years old when it was published in 1995. In it, she recalls her life story by describing (in words and pictures) the dresses she owned from the age of seven. She describes the expensive (45-dollar) navy blue dress her father bought her after her mother died when Beckerman was 12; the black bathing suit she wore on a date with a boy at the age of 14, accompanied by her grandmother, who had become her guardian (“After we went to live with my grandparents, I never saw my father again.”); the black-and-red-print taffeta maternity dress that she wore when she was pregnant with each of her six children, one of whom died at 18 months from a virus (which she puts literally in parentheses.) She describes the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress that she wore when she decided to divorce her second husband.
It’s not all clothing. Her grandmother, she wrote, “put Vaseline in her hair to keep it nice. She believed in two cures: Vaseline for anything wrong outside of the body and hot tea with lemon for anything inside the body.”
But Ilene Beckerman’s world view is clear: At one point, after describing in detail a prom dress she once wore, she wrote, “I don’t remember the boy I went with or the prom, just the dress.”
Some of Beckerman’s stories, her best lines, and even a number of the illustrations from the book are all part of the play that the Ephron sisters created. But Gingy (Beckerman’s actual childhood nickname because of her ginger hair), performed in this reading by Carol Kane, is just one character. The playwrights added stories from their friends (and, I suspect, from their imagination), and pumped up both the humor and the sentiment. They also expanded the wardrobe to include such items as training bras and pocketbooks that the characters view as mortifying and/or oppressive, and expanded the stories to include a lesbian wedding, breast cancer, and rape. And in this way, the playwrights turned this piece from an exercise in fashion nostalgia to an assertion of female consciousness.
“Love, Loss and What I Wrote” debuted in September, 2009 at the Westside Theater,. By the time it ended its run in March, 2012, almost 100 actresses had participated in the rotating cast, including the five who performed it five years later at the Y – besides Kane and O’Donnell (who was in the original cast) – Lucy DeVito, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Natasha Lyonne (who was also in the original cast.) — and this doesn’t include the productions in L.A. Sydney, Manila, Toronto , Buenos Aires, Cape Town
It seems easy to argue that this show had transcended whatever its theatrical merits and turned into a form of community organizing.
Isn’t that what almost all theater seems to be doing now? If “Love, Loss and What I Wore” became a kind of communal gathering as a theatrical show of support for the community of women, its online presentation feels like another of the many shows of support these days for the community at large.