“What Kind of Woman,” playwright Abbe Tanenbaum tells us in a program note, was inspired by a cache of letters from women seeking abortion before Roe vs. Wade, which she discovered at the home of a client.
Judging from the play she has written, however, her main inspiration actually came from the fact that her client was a hoarder, who hired Tanenbaum to be her “personal organizer” – somebody to help her clean up her cluttered apartment.
Abbe Tannenbaum herself portrays her stand-in, Anne, a personal organizer who is helping Nora (Virginia Wall Gruenert) declutter her Chelsea apartment.
Nora, who is in her 70s, is the kind of loud, vivid character who calls herself “the oldest goddess in Chelsea” on her outgoing answering machine message. As the play begins, she is complaining over the phone with her building management about a clogged toilet, then gets a phone call from her adult son David, who wants to pay her a visit with his newly pregnant wife. This causes Nora great stress for two reasons. First, she left David when she gave up on her marriage to his father when David was seven years old, and has had almost nothing to do with him since. Then, her place is a mess; she never throws anything out; it would be too embarrassing to have him visit her – and there’s no way she can ever find Walter, his old teddy bear, which he (improbably) inquired about. That’s when Nora stumbles onto Anne’s YouTube channel, and hires her.
The scenes and alternating video clips that follow are largely taken up with Anne’s effort, and Nora’s resistance, to get rid of Nora’s stuff.
Anne: Keep or toss?
Anne: Ok, now I guess we have a Maybe Pile.
Kudos to Tucker Topel’s set full of impressive clutter and the stagehands who carry it away little by little with each new scene, slowly revealing a habitable apartment.
As Anne and Nora work together, they get to know one another. Anne is an actress, a career she’s wanted ever since her father took her to see “Chicago” when she was six. Not long afterward, he abandoned his family. She recently broke up with her boyfriend. Nora recently lost Cecily, her lover of many years, to cancer.
Fairly early on in the play, Anne discovers among the detritus a letter from a woman from Madison, Georgia seeking an abortion (“This needs to be done at once. I already have three small children and my husband is an alcoholic so I honestly don’t think I could hold up under another pregnancy.”) This is how Anne learns that Nora used to volunteer in a nearby abortion clinic in the 1960s and 1970s, before the Supreme Court made abortion a constitutional right. As with all the other stuff she happened upon during her life, Nora kept the letters.
actual letter read in the play
It takes until halfway through the 90-minute play before abortion comes up again. Anne reads a couple more of the letters. Nora reminisces about what the clinic was like, and goes into graphic detail about what the procedure entailed. Anne says she’s pro-choice, but she expresses her moral qualms about a women getting an abortion in this day and age. (The play is set five to six years ago.)
Anne: It’s not the 1950’s anymore. We have so much more access to birth control – IUDs, implants, shots, the pill – how can you be so careless?”
Nora: Women aren’t magically getting knocked up by themselves.
Anne: I know how babies are made. It’s the woman’s responsibility. It’s not fair, but men aren’t going to take birth control.
Not long afterward, in a development that’s perhaps a bit too pat, Nora suspects Anne might be pregnant. She insists Anne use one of the large number of pregnancy tests that Nora has kept in her apartment for years. Anne scoffs at the suggestion, but says “I’ll pee on one, just so you’ll have to throw it out.”
“What Kind of Woman” makes far less use of those cache of actual letters from women seeking abortion than I had expected, and I was disappointed that the playwright didn’t use her imagination to incorporate them in a way that went beyond her own literal experience. (The letters are apparently on display in the lobby, but I didn’t see them; I didn’t even see a lobby.) The many short videos in the production obviously give time to the stagehands to remove the clutter, and, since Anne and Nora are supposed to be making them for her YouTube channel, their amateurishness is probably intended to be charming; I didn’t find them that way. But thanks to the undeniable wit in the script, the competence of the (in person) acting, and the meticulousness of the design team, “What Kind of Woman” does largely work the way the playwright intends it, as (according to her program note) “a story about women, intergenerational friendship, found family and the validating power of choice.”
And, above all, (although she doesn’t mention this) a story about clutter. I especially enjoyed the back-and-forth about decluttering, even though it hit far too close to home, inspiring feelings of envy and guilt (I should be home doing this instead of watching it.)
What Kind of Woman
At Cell Theater through November 19, 2022
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Written by Abbe Tanenbaum
Directed by Kira Simring
Set design by Tucker Topel, lighting design by Forrest Trimble, costume design by Laura Irene Young, sound design by Shannon Knapp, video design, dramaturgy and production stage management by Katie Mack.A
Cast: Virginia Wall Gruenert and Abbe Tanenbaum.
Photos by Carol Rosegg