Jennifer Who Is Leaving, a scathing feminist comedy written and directed by Morgan Gould now premiering at Round House, is set in a franchise donut shop just off a Massachusetts highway in the dead of night during a mean winter storm. The title foretells what happens: A woman named Jennifer leaves. But hold on tight for the bite in this uproarious dramedy, which reveals exactly what, why, and whom she leaves. Because Nora’s door slam in A Doll’s House has nothin’ on Jennifer’s decision to depart a Dunkin’.
Women’s exasperation with men’s resistance to cleaning up after themselves, insistence on not asking directions, persistent egocentrism, and other oafish habits has never been mined more hilariously and achingly for the stage than has Gould in this delicious dessert dipped in bitter tears. The phrase “the politics of housework” was coined in the women’s movement back in 1970. At last, it has a laugh-and-gasp track.
Set designer Paige Hathaway really plunks us down in a Dunkin’. (Five years ago the chain foolishly rebranded itself without Donuts in its name.) Overhead is tempting product-placement signage, stage left is a glass entranceway with a door that dings, behind a counter centerstage are racks of edible props (coordinated by Andrea “Dre” Moore), and stage right is a customer restroom, which in due time will flush (among the show’s many sounds of realness provided by Justin Schmitz).
Working the night shift is sixtysomething Nan, played by the redoubtable Nancy Robinette, who in a funny opening monologue is on the phone with her husband talking him through some of the simple things he can’t seem to do around the house for himself. “Men!” she vents, upon hanging up. Make no mistake, the chipper-chatty cheer that Robinette brings to Nan belies formidable grit.
Seated in a wheelchair at a table sloppily eating donuts is Joey, a potty-mouth, infantile octogenarian played to the rude-crude hilt by Floyd King. Fortysomething Jennifer, his put-upon caretaker, was returning her obstreperous charge to the senior facility that employs her but took a wrong turn in the snow. At first, Jennifer’s face seems set in long-suffering woe, but as we soon find out, the emotional range that Kimberly Gilbert brings to the role, particularly in a cathartic scene near the end, is show-stopping awesome.
The play’s first half is a steady build during which there’s more entertaining behavior and comedic banter than dramatic action per se. We learn much about Nan’s and Jennifer’s home life, which for both centers on a husband whose controllingness comes of noncooperation. Nan’s husband, she half-jests, “sleeps the gentle sleep of a person who has never cleaned out the fridge or easy off’d the oven.” Bemoans Jennifer: “I’ve been married for 7,665 days and I know that not ONE of those days has my husband made dinner.”
Gould makes a nervy choice in having Joey on stage the whole time. Even when he’s in the toilet he’s a terror, and his exaggerated obnoxiousness, which starts out cartoonish-funny then turns repellant, underscores the offstage husbands’ more conventionally self-centered behavior. If Joey wears out his welcome, the play seems to say, imagine how he wears down Jennifer.
Both Nan and Jennifer have grown kids, so in an illuminating interlude Lili, a part-time Dunkin’ employee, enters and joins the seriocomic consciousness awakening from the point of view of a high school girl who’s beset by her controlling father. Annie Fang plays the contrapuntal role with woebegone wit and a canny and languid physicality that’s genuinely enjoyable. (Fang also returns in an uncredited role near the end with a storytelling monologue she delivers spellbindingly.)
Despite, or perhaps because of, Nan’s and Jennifer’s dismaying lot with men, an infectious and exuberant camaraderie develops between them. In one fun scene, for instance, they gloriously dance — to the background music of “I Wanna Dance With Someone” and “Dancing Queen” — jokingly partnering with a mop and slop bucket.
Cracking up each other (and the audience as well), they compare notes on the men in their lives.
JENNIFER (laughing): They’re so fragile. It’s sort of sad!
JOEY: NO WE AREN’T / SHUT UP
(The women burst out laughing.)
JENNIFER: It’s ALSO HILARIOUS TO ME HOW MANY OF THEM THINK THEY HAVE A RICH INNER LIFE!
NAN: I wish I had time for an inner life!
JENNIFER (in hysterics): Oh and we know they don’t actually have one!
Gradually the play pivots as we come to see all that weighs on these women, especially on Jennifer, whose powerful scene in response as played by Gilbert will burn itself into your brain.
The proto-feminist Norwegian playwright Ibsen, who in 1879 controversially dramatized in A Doll’s House a woman’s revolt against men’s domination by walking out, didn’t know the half of it. Morgan Gould fills in what he left out and does Ibsen one better. She does it for dead-serious laughs — in a knockout play that should be destined for Broadway.
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
Jennifer Who Is Leaving plays through May 7, 2023, as part of Round House Theatre’s National Capital New Play Festival, at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($46-$81 plus fees), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online. (Learn more about special discounts here and Free Play program for students here.)
The playbill for Jennifer Who Is Leaving is online here.
COVID Safety: Round House Theatre no longer requires that audience members wear masks for most performances. However, masks are required for performances on April 1, 8, 12, 22, 29, and May 6.
DISCUSSIONS AND ACCESSIBILITY
View pre-show and post-show discussions here.
Audio-Described Performance: April 22 at 2:00 pm
Open-Captioned Performance: May 6 at 2:00 pm
Learn more about accessibility at Round House here.
Jennifer Who Is Leaving
Written and Directed by Morgan Gould
Nan: Nancy Robinette
Joey: Floyd King
Jennifer: Kimberly Gilbert
Lili: Annie Fang
Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway
Costume Designer: Ivania Stack
Lighting Designer: Emma Deane
Sound Designer: Justin Schmitz
Properties Coordinator: Andrea “Dre” Moore
Dialect Coach: Zachary Campion
Dramaturg: Lauren Halvorsen
Assistant Director: Shana Laski
Casting Director: Sarah Cooney
Production Stage Manager: Rachael Danielle Albert
Morgan Gould on her new feminist comedy with bite, now at Round House (interview by Ravelle Brickman, April 1, 2023)
Minimalist re-envisioning of ‘A Doll’s House’ at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre (review by Deb Miller, March 23, 2023)