Watching Women Laughing Alone with Salad is like reading the diary of the archetypical basic bitch.
The pumpkin spice latté-sipping, infinity scarf-wearing, thin, blonde cliché carefully camouflages her rage and body angst beneath an impenetrable wall of Lululemon. That is, until a chance interaction—prompted by a boyfriend’s wandering eye or a decadent piece of stuffed french toast—allows her inner id to roar free, screaming out Kanye West lyrics and waging psychological warfare on the other women who aspire to her hard-won crown.
An exploration of the unspoken social contract surrounding white femininity, the themes of age, body shame, weight, food, lust, and longing are explored through the three female characters. Tori (played by Meghan Reardon) is living the Instagrammed American Dream but dreams of being free to enjoy her life; Meredith (Kimberly Gilbert), the vivacious and curvy party girl who secretly nurses a desire to be loved and accepted, and Sandy (Janet Ulrich Brooks), the activist turned upper-middle class mother desperately trying to hold on to her sexual currency through extreme anti-aging methods. The three women orbit around Guy (Thomas Keegan), the stand-in for a Failure-to-Launch style everybro who lazes through life, privileged enough to afford the requisite accessories (Moleskine notebook, classic Fender guitar, cuffed designer skinny jeans) but secretly racked with self-doubt and stricken with affluenza.
On Medium, Woolly Mammoth Theater company explains the genesis of the work, inspired by Edith Zimmerman’s meme-spawning 2011 post which featured stock photos of women awkwardly posed alongside their lunches:
[Sheila Callaghan’s] play began as an exploration of these Women Laughing Alone with Salad—their lives, their desires, their voices. It became a hilariously and beautifully rendered feminist deconstruction of what these stock photographs represent.
The four characters are all on a quest to get the most out of modern life, but this simple idea proves to be a Faustian bargain with a vengeful salad god. Meredith and Tori are unlikely halves of a whole—the curvaceous Meredith attempts to project a fun-loving pin-up girl image, body rolling through a nightclub with a flask strapped to her exposed thighs. Tori, on the other hand, does everything by the book. She works out, does yoga, eats salad, and gives on-demand blowjobs. In theory, she should have everything—but she can’t seem to make her life feel real. "Do you just do everything and enjoy nothing?" Guy shouts during a fight. The sadness that plays on Tori’s face reveals the truth: It’s all as filtered as a Facebook timeline. Outwardly, Meredith is the embodiment of confidence, embracing life and all it has to offer. An unrepentant man-eater, she first encounters Guy at a nightclub, captivating him with her abandon, which he reads as joie de vivre. “I will eat you alive,” she both commands and promises. But inwardly, Meredith is just as conflicted and fearful as Tori, seeking the same sort of acceptance while pretending to reject the societal norms that still guide her ambitions.
After a few flirtatious nights, she and Guy go home together—only to find Tori, the good, giving, and game girlfriend perched on the couch. A reluctant, slightly adversarial threesome ensues. In the post-coital after-loathe, Tori’s claws come out, shredding Meredith’s flimsy self-esteem until she’s left quietly crying out for a salad: a talisman that makes her feel pure, wholesome, and virtuous. “Did you think she was different?” taunts Tori as Guy looks on in horror.
Sandy exists as more of a framework than a character—as Guy’s matriarch, she loathes what she sees in Meredith and loves what Tori represents. A former activist, she surrendered her ambitions to become a mother—a choice she doesn’t regret, but finds herself acting out upper-middle class angst. She chafes against any boundaries placed on her, tartly explaining to Guy, “If I had remained an activist…you would be an abortion." Guy, for his part, doesn’t know what to do with his Oedipus complex. He alternately hates his mother and longs for her, accusing her of ruining the family while also admitting that she gave up too much of herself. Their relationship is underscored with verbal (and later, actual) sparring.
The second half of the play flips to focus on the male psyche through the performance of a bro-heavy white masculinity featuring fear, anxiety, and the nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right, bundled with visuals like a conference room masturbatory session before the pitch before a large pharmaceutical company.
Different in tone and pace from the first half, viewers instead are treated to a grand narrative of failed promise and shattered dreams, one that hasn’t been seen since the likes of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Our neo-tragic hero, Guy, finally has grown up. Now a Big Pharma executive, Guy dons his suit and tie, talks to all the other bros, and feels dead on the inside while selling products to make women feel more alive. In a long soliloquy after burying his mother, he embodies the essence of the fallen American man described in Susan Flaudi’s Stiffed. The denouement occurs during a face-off between Guy and his Marissa Meyer-esque new manager, leaving the viewer with a sense of catharsis alongside lingering questions. Dizzying, provocative, and engaging, the play is a long, discomforting look in the mirror.
Whose life are we all buying into, and why is it for sale?
Women Laughing Alone with Salad plays at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC until October 4th, as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.