Women in Jeopardy! comes on like a conventional comedy, but there’s something wild inside this play, and periodically that wild thing escapes. Thanks to expert direction and a fine cast, the jokes land, and the plot twists, but the show’s biggest thrills reside in those odd moments when everything goes completely crazy.
Heather Ayers is Mary, the fulcrum of the story’s big, loopy arcs. Most of the first act takes place in Mary’s kitchen, and Ayers exploits this home-court advantage to maximum comic effect. Her best friend, Jo (Annabelle Gurwitch), represents what little the play has in the way of a voice of reason, a quality that inevitably leads her to make some of the night’s funniest wisecracks. It’s Liz’s (DeeDee Rescher) new relationship with Jackson (William Salyers) that sets the show’s sequence of events in motion, and Rescher revels in the role, never letting go of her love-struck confidence in the future for a second, even in the face of some disconcerting news. It seems her lover, Jackson the dentist, may be a killer.
The evening’s first bouts of irresistible laughter strike when Salyers enters Mary’s kitchen as Jackson. We know just enough about his situation to wonder about him, and he more than delivers on the expectation of something strange. As he growls and barks affectionately at Liz and then makes a series of sudden and inappropriate remarks, it feels as if no one can take their eyes off of him. Later on, when Salyers reappears in a second role (I won’t spoil it any further), he’s just as funny and nearly as off-kilter.
As Liz’s 19-year-old daughter, Amanda, Sophie Ullett has the most predictable role. Although her character frequently veers into stereotypical “basic” girl territory, the actress nevertheless succeeds in creating excitement through several great turnarounds. Matthew Grondin plays Amanda’s boyfriend, Trenner, and he’s terrific. Again, as with Salyers’s performance, it’s the physical characterization that really sells these scenes, and Grondin is never less than hilarious, especially when he is coming on to Ayers’s Mary.
Heather Ayers is such a pleasure to watch in this show. On opening night, there was an unexpected moment in the second act when the banana coffee cake wasn’t where it should have been, and Ayers covered in part by doing a goofy dance to buy some time while the prop was replaced. It was beautiful, loose, and charming, and the audience roared. She owns the New Vic stage right now.