No-one would ever have described the life of a 30-something woman as “easy.” But in the post-Sex and the City era, in which rowdy banter over brunch has become a cliché and nights of martini-shaped cocktails are part of a mating dance to land Mr. Big and his penthouse apartment, women are forced to spend more and more time explaining where their own desires fit into this frantic spectrum of expectations. On one side are relatives demanding a summer wedding and a baby bump; on the other, the now-archaic image of a power-hungry “single gal.” For all these reasons, shows like Mel & El: Show and Tell are arguably more necessary than ever. During a time in which writing a story about female friendship and singlehood is likely to be met with more than a few eye rolls, exploring the emotional shades of gray in what it means to be a woman takes creative guts. This is exactly what Mel and El does, in a rowdy, heartfelt, and endearing production.
Written by two real-life best friends, Melanie Adelman and Ellie Dvorkin, this mini-musical is the latest in the duo’s string of collaborations, which includes a Gotham Comedy Club appearance, a NYMF entry, and a subsequent year-long run of their festival show, Mel and El: This Show Rhymes, at The Duplex. Lounging in a hot pink room plastered with images of ‘80s icons like Guns N’ Roses, Cher and Meat Loaf, the pair reminisce about their long friendship, address their secret desires (strangers’ babies are becoming cuter by the day), argue about their differences (El is an exhibitionist, Mel more tightly wound), and even sing about their darker traumas (plastic surgery, a lifelong obsession to be perfect).
It’s the paradigm of this physical space that allows us to get to know these two characters so quickly; surrounded by mementos of their childhoods, Mel and El don’t have to deal with the burdens of a public façade, and let us know early on that inside this room-within-a stage, they feel safe. “Our little pink box is where we are/It’s better than a disco, better than a bar/We do what we like, we’re totally free/You can be you and I can be me,” they sing, and we both sense their lack of pretention and feel honored to be let into their world. As they recall the routines, innuendo-laden inside jokes and over-the top dreams of their teenage years, we root for them—because many of us, even as adults, act just as foolishly when we think that nobody is watching.
Mel and El’s private territory isn’t wholly free from intrusion; their nagging mothers—one a pill-popping stereotype of a Jewish mother and one a foul-mouthed Brit—make two brief appearances during the show. Instead of being played by two additional actors, however, they are introduced as a pair of puppets (handled by Jeremiah Holmes) that resemble characters in Avenue Q. The choice is hilarious and unexpectedly poignant; like the invisible, metallic-voiced parents in early Peanuts cartoons, these demanding grown-ups are a different species altogether.
The score, composed by Patrick Spencer Bodd, doesn’t always match up to Adelman and Dvorkin’s gleefully written text, but boasts a few standouts. "She’s My Bitch," the show’s opening and closing number, is appropriately catchy, while "I’m Hatin’ on Ya" cleverly channels a mid-‘90s pop rap song. Despite the show’s outrageous feel, a few ballads give momentum to its narrative and keep it from spinning in place. Some quieter moments—especially the usually jovial El’s song about her experiences with plastic surgery—are downright haunting in their sense of lived realism. “I’d managed to avoid the scene/Where every Jewish princess cuts her face apart at age thirteen,” she sings, creating a pained moment that’s difficult to forget.
Like Mel and El, most of us know that hiding in our childhood bedrooms won’t provide permanent protection against the world’s expectations or keep us from panicking about the numerous dreams we were too self-doubting or preoccupied to fulfill. But unlike so many tales about single women, the work encourages us to find comfort in what we already have—and find hilarity in both our secret desires and our shortcomings.