In his Poetics, Aristotle wrote that theater should inspire “pity and fear.”  By this standard, Love, Loss and What I Wore, now playing in New York, L.A., and Toronto, is theater. In fact, it is drama of the highest order for any woman who has known the sheer terror of staring at the mirror inside a retail dressing room, or the wave of self-pity that washes over you when you open an overflowing closet and realize that you “have nothing to wear.”

The show is based on Ilene Beckerman’s slim jewel of a memoir, originally published in 1995. In the book, Beckerman recounts major and not-so-major events of her life through memorable outfits—from her Brownie uniform to her first career pantsuit, from her (two) wedding dresses to the outfits she wore at her own daughters’ nuptials.

Through these various ensembles, delightfully illustrated by the author, we access a precious little time capsule that seems to walk us through the entire women’s liberation movement. We glimpse the transformative power of crinolines and strapless evening gowns, the freedom of movement in a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, and the way the right silk shirt over the right black shift conveys instant confidence. And we do indeed learn about Beckerman’s loves and losses.

The story behind the book is a bit of a publishing fairy tale in itself. Beckerman wrote and illustrated it for her children, because, as she puts it, “They never thought I had a life before I was their mother.” An old friend sent the manuscript to a publisher and a couple of years later, Ms. Beckerman and her very personal work were on the New York Times bestseller list.

Although I was already a big fan of the little book, I wondered how so slight a piece could transform into a full-length show. Enter the sisters Ephron, who between them have made full-length movies out of far lighter material.

Nora Ephron is the unstoppable creative power behind such chick-flicks as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail (not to mention Julie & Julia).  Sister Delia is no box-office slouch herself, having written The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Hanging Up, in addition to her own screenwriting credit for You’ve Got Mail. The Ephrons kept many of Beckerman’s stories—with enlargements of her original drawings—and added several more, based on interviews with a variety of other women as well as their own wit and wisdom.

So we hear from “Gingy” (Beckerman’s nickname, prompted by her red hair) throughout the evening, as well as from other women, about beloved clothing items: shoes, favorite shirts, prom dresses. We laugh at trends: the Audrey Hepburn look, the Madonna look. We nod when we hear “There will never be a new black;” sheepishly remember trying to go to the bathroom in a jumpsuit; and cringe when we learn, “’You know you have finally given up when you go to Eileen Fisher.” (I was in the fourth row, and I swear Eileen Fisher’s entire summer collection was seated in front of me. They took it well.)

It may be stating the obvious, but let me be clear: this is a play by women for women. Do not attempt to bring your father, husband or son to this show. They won’t laugh; you’ll feel exposed. Women’s relationships with their clothing are complicated and not entirely rational. In fact, if any of the observations in Love, Loss and What I Wore were made by men rather than women, they would seem downright insulting.

The production is straightforward, set up as a staged reading with five actresses on chairs, scripts in front of them on music stands. New York’s Westside Theatre/Downstairs is a comfortable, intimate performance space, ideally suited to the production, which would be lost in a larger theater. Like The Vagina Monologues before it (to which Love, Loss and What I Wore owes more than a passing nod), it is presented by a revolving cast of accomplished actresses. Part of the fun is seeing who has already played in it and which familiar faces you’ll see tonight.

The evening I attended, the cast was familiar if not quite famous, and certainly first-rate. Tony nominee and Emmy winner Penny Fuller endowed Gingy with girlish charm and seasoned wisdom in equal measure. Rachael Harris was hilarious as she described (and demonstrated) her flabby upper arms (“Where did these come from?”) and an eventful dinner party, at which she got her period “in a big way” and bled through her trendy paper dress onto her host’s designer chair. Cobie Smulders from the popular TV show, “How I Met Your Mother,” was drop-dead gorgeous and endearing at the same time.

Standouts included two understudies who did more than hold their own. Karyn Quackenbush, quite a petite woman, was wholly believable as a fat girl “with a pretty face.” And her long monologue, “I hate my purse,” was hilarious. More than one audience member bought her alternative recommendation (a shiny plastic Metro bag) in the lobby after the show. Monique Fowler was funny when required, but also served up some of the evening’s most poignant moments as a woman whose relationship with clothing was made all the more complicated by her relationship with her mother.

This leads to my only criticism of the show: the writing is terrific, at once funny and smart, self-deprecating and sympathetic, but the evening is heavy-handed. Beckerman’s book passes over tragedy quietly; there are places where I had to re-read sections because she so subtly introduced the death of a parent or a baby. The effect is more pathos, not less. The Ephrons, on the other hand, seemed to feel the need to add a dramatic punctuation mark to each of these events. As in their blockbuster chick-flicks, nothing is left to the imagination. Subtlety, thy name ain’t Ephron.

In the added material there is plenty of comedy, but many of the monologues end on sober, if not tragic notes. So a story about boots becomes a story about rape. A discussion of bras evolves into a tale of breast cancer. A bathrobe emerges as the only thing one woman remembers of her dead mother. And shopping for a bridal gown turns into an uber-modern observation on gay marriage and acceptance. I lost count of how many pieces of clothing became symbols of life before divorce, life during divorce, or life after divorce. These bits are well written and acted, but I have to say, less would have been more.

On the whole, however, Love, Loss and What I Wore is enormous fun. And in keeping with Aristotle’s views on drama, the audience (at least 95 percent of whom were women) did leave the theater having shared a profound experience of catharsis. We flaunted, we confessed, we shared our histories as well as our wardrobes. “We are woman, hear us roar.” Or at the very least, “We are woman, get us to the sale at Bloomingdales.”

If you’re looking for a girls’ night out and want something a bit smarter than Sex & the City 2, get yourself to Love, Loss and What I Wore.

One last question: What will you wear?

Video: Can clothes tell your life story? – Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

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  • roz warren May 14, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Excellent review! Gives me a good sense of what I’ll experience if I go. Which I probably won’t. The book was a perfect little gem and I suspect that for me, the onstage Ephron-ized version just won’t stand up. I met the book’s author once (we happened to be promoting books at the same time and ended up sharing a table at a book-singing event.) She was just delightful! Great company — insightful and wry and charming, just like her book.

  • Tara Dillard June 24, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Bill Blass said, “A woman with a closet full of clothes, but nothing to wear doesn’t know herself very well.”

    Great metaphor to spread to our landscape, furniture & etc…

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  • Elizabeth W. June 23, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I remember reading the book when it came out. The idea of translating it to the stage wouldn’t have occurred to me but I think it makes sense.