Harvard is certainly not a very rah-rah place. And Harvard students, as a rule, aren't very good at being rah-rah.
So, when Vanities opens with three high school cheerleaders planning a pep rally, we jaded Harvard students are inclined to be skeptical--skeptical about whether any of us could possibly pull such a play off, and skeptical about the worth of any play which focuses on the lives of three vain cheerleaders.
But although Vanities has a few too many moments of annoying cuteness, for the most part such skepticism is unfounded.
The first act takes place in 1963 at the cheerleaders' high school, and we watch as the three seniors talk about the big football game, guys, and college.
Kathy (Jenny O'Brien) is the organizer and the planner--she epitomizes 'cheerleader.' "All I want to do is be a cheerleader," she says, and we believe her.
Joanne (Tracey Roberts) is traditional, dumb, and concerned only with maintaining her popularity and reputation. Her lines include such gems as "I want to go to college but I sure don't want to learn anything," and "After I found out George Eliot was a woman, I got all confused."
Mary (Michele Walters) wants more freedom and hates her parents. She talks about how every time her boyfriend gives her another gift, she'll let him go a little further. "With each gift I give in a little more. He's got more gifts lined up than I have parts to give!"
Certainly subtlety is not a strength of the play and just to remind us one more time of the shallowness and superficiality of life in the popular lane, at the end of the first act, when the principal announces over the loud speaker that the President (Kennedy) has been shot, the three girls are convinced that he is talking about the president of the student body.
Although all of the actresses occasionally stumble over their lines, each plays her one-dimensional, stereotypic role well, and by the end of the first act, any doubts about whether Harvard students can be rah-rah have been dispelled. Now we want to know if they can do more than just be rah-rah.
But the second act doesn't really tell us, and it somewhat drags, because it's basically more of the same.
Now the three girls are running the best sorority on campus, and popularity is still the most important thing. They handle life the same way they handle the annual contest between the Greeks--they keep doing the same skit, year after year, as long as it keeps winning.
Kathy has organized her way through her four years in college, but nothing has gone quite right; Mary is getting ready to go to Europe and has changed her boyfriends as often as she changed her sweater sets; Joanne, as traditional as always, is getting ready to marry Ted, her high school sweetheart.
When Mary tells Joanne "If he hasn't gotten tired of you by now, I don't suppose he ever will," she just about sums up the audience's attitude toward the play.
But, at last, in the third act, we actually see that Roberts, O'Brien and Walters can do more than just play cheerleaders--they can act, too.
It is now 1974, and the three are all together for the first time in years. Each of the three has grown in entirely different directions; none of them has adjusted well to adult life, but they all have adjusted differently.
Nothing has worked out for Kathy as she expected it to, and O'Brien plays her role here with exceptional subtlety and sensitivity--she is understated but all the more effective because of it. Mary has sought freedom in countless bedrooms, and has become cynical and bitter, and Walters successfully captures this disillusionment. Joanne has never grown up, and her life isn't quite as blissful as she pretends it is. Roberts does an excellent job of maintaining her character despite the fact that both of her fellow actresses have changed dramatically. Moreover, she manages to be incredibly annoying and totally endearing at the same time. We want to hit her, yet we want to protect her.
By the time the play ends we have seen vanity in every possible shape and form, from the vanities, or dressing tables, which the actresses use during each of the two intermissions, to the actual vanity of the the three popular girls.
Just in case we fail to notice the obvious--the different types of vanity--there is an author's note giving three definitions of vanity and telling us that the play means all of these things.
But the lack of subtlety is the script's fault, not the production's. Another, more serious problem with the script is simply that it's dated. The problems that these women face which were real dilemmas in the '70's, now seem dated and cliche. We are left feeling that there should still be something more, that exposing the problems is not enough, because we've all seen them before.