For ladies only … and men who have periods

“Women’s studies — we though it’d be a little macrame … ” protest Madeline and Sylvia, two New York seniors, as they totter into the cafe where they’re meeting their class.

Soon enlightened by their continuing-education course, the eccentric elderly duo attempts to hang with vegetarian cuisine, alternative decor and a feminist-themed interpretive-art performance.

That’s just one of the 14 surprisingly probable scenarios that unfold in Parallel Lives, currently running at 35below.

Written by comic duo Mo Gaffney (That ’70s Show and Absolutely Fabulous) and Kathy Najimy (Sister Act and the voice of King of the Hill‘s Peggy Hill), Parallel Lives is based on their own Kathy and Mo Show.

Think Lucy and Ethel meet Thelma and Louise.

In the local production, Kathy and Mo are portrayed by Sarah Carpenter (recently seen in Backyard Fruit) and Betsy Browning (Plaeides Productions), two actresses capable of a wide range of expressions a la character comic Tracy Ullman, whose short-sketches show format is echoed in the structure of Lives.

These are characters that we all know — whether we want to or not.

There’s the simplistic, obnoxious frat boy and his air-headed girlfriend who go on a date to “queer Denny’s,” two Brooklyn teens comparing their own relationships to those in Westside Story, and two sisters who get into a food fight at their grandmother’s funeral.

Though instantly recognizable, these broad caricatures, pure in their predictability, are what fortify Kathy and Mo’s humor.

Called “a romp with feminist sensibility” (Variety) and “[a] Valentine to the female gender” (Curtain Up), Lives speaks to experiences common to most women — though this spoof-heavy performance isn’t just for the girls. Witness the dirt farmer’s widow who endorses feminine hygiene products just before the scene switches to two male ballplayers discussing cramps in a warped world where men have periods. “Hey, a••wipe,” one yells to his buddy, “got a ‘pon I could borrow?”

And then there’s Karen Sue, the Southern barfly, tirelessly putting off the advances of sloppily drunk Hank. (“I think I’ve been to this bar before,” someone in the audience was actually overheard smirking.)

Where Parallel loses its momentum is where the material veers from funny to reflective. A vignette featuring a woman imagining herself as the perfect partner for Kenny Rogers is juxtaposed with the musings of a well-schooled prostitute. While Browning’s portrayal of the streetwalker is inarguably well crafted, the humor is lost in the dark revelation that a woman attempting the recreate herself to please a man is no different from a hooker. Heavy stuff.

References to bulimia, chronically insecure relationships and a tedious series of reflections on Christianity also serve to weigh the play down. But the gems that Parallel produces in its best moments make the show worth sitting through a nearly three-hour running time.

In one skit, earnest feminist performance artists Holly and Molly writhe behind a stretchy pink triangle of fabric, emulating the birth process — and delivering a hysterical response from the audience. Which is, after all, what a comedy is supposed to do.

Parallel Lives continues its run with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21 through Saturday, Oct. 23 and Thursday, Oct. 28 through Saturday, Oct. 30 at 35below, beneath Asheville Community Theatre (35 E. Walnut St.). All tickets are $10. For more information, call 254-1320.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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