Regina Morones (Meredith), Melanie DuPuy (Sandy), and Sango Tajima (Tori) in Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

When viewing the ubiquitous online stock photos of svelte young women inexplicably laughing over their green salads, playwright Sheila Callaghan saw the larger issues of stereotyped gender roles, women’s shame and self-deprivation, men’s chauvinism and insecurity and the deleterious influence of advertising and marketing on women.

From these concepts, her two-act comedy, Women Laughing Alone With Salad, was born. The issues Callaghan (Everything You Touch, Bed and TV’s Shameless) raises are important ones, but the skit-like exploration of the ideas are neither funny enough nor serious enough to make a worthwhile statement, despite fine direction by Susannah Martin, superior acting by the four-person cast and effective photo projections, lighting and music.

But luckily, that is not Sheila Callaghan’s aim. She said in an interview: “I don’t need the play to have a lasting impact, but I do need the people who see it to have a question that they get to walk away with answers for, or at least more questions.” That may satisfy Callaghan, but I hope for more substance and cohesiveness from a play than I experienced at Shotgun Players’ opening night.

Women Laughing Alone With Salad begins by introducing its four characters. Three women sit on a park bench eating salads, while they force laughs and titters for no apparent reason. They are Sandy (Melanie DuPuy), a well-coifed woman in her 50s; Meredith (Regina Morones), a curvy, normal-sized woman in her 30s; and Tori (Sango Tajima), a small, extremely thin young woman. Then 29-year-old Guy (Caleb Cabrera), a wannabe writer, wedges himself among them on the bench and eats a large burrito. The women gaze longingly at his hearty, aromatic meal, which, between bites, he rests in his crotch.

The first act centers on Guy, the protagonist, and anti-hero of the play, and the three women of the salad-eating scene. Guy has an almost Oedipal relationship with his mother, Sandy. She is a former feminist and activist, who is now so concerned about aging that she goes to ridiculous extremes in the name of youth and beauty. Guy is dating Tori, who is bulimic, and her food issues exhaust him. While at a club, Guy meets and is attracted to the voluptuous Meredith. He is disappointed to find that she is also insecure and has body-shaming issues.

In a break from Guy’s interactions with the women in his life, we see him working as a waiter at a restaurant, where his three women customers order only a raw vegetable each, much to Guy’s disgust.

Sango Tajima (Joe) and Regina Morones (Bruce). Photo: Ben Krantz Studio
Sango Tajima (Joe) and Regina Morones (Bruce). Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

The second act in this 135-minute production is a role reversal of the sexes. Regina Morones, Sango Tajima and Melanie DuPuy play male advertising/marketing executives in suits, who are creating a campaign for a new women’s anti-depressant. They report to a woman, who is Caleb Cabrera, well-dressed in a skirt and heels. Here we see how talented this crew of actors is. Their body language is right-on. So, for example, instead of Regina Morones oozing female sexuality as she did in Act One, she affects a stereotypically masculine swagger.

This second-act switching of the sexes is the most noteworthy and creative aspect of the play. Many of the other scenes in Women Laughing Alone With Salad are not very funny, nor particularly insightful, including the simulated scenes of masturbation and a three-way sex act. They neither move the plot along nor present thought-provoking ideas. But the play does succeed on the playwright’s terms. You’ll be talking about the play and asking questions when you leave the theater.

Women Laughing Alone With Salad is playing at the Ashby Stage through Nov. 11. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun Players online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...