Assessment: Trendy renovations don’t enhance upon the unique “Designing Ladies”

The lights have gone up in Georgia with the staging of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s theatrical adaptation/replace of her hit mid-80s-early-90s tv present, Designing Ladies, operating at Horizon Theatre by November 6. Nearly 30 years after the beloved sitcom aired its ultimate episode, Thomason has written a play that imagines how the unique characters can be faring if that they had been plopped down in 2020. How would they be reacting to the pandemic, the Trump presidency and the motion for Black lives?

It’s an irresistible thought, notably given its famously outspoken lead character (keep in mind when Liz Lemon provides a sleep-deprived Julia Sugarbaker-style rant in 30 Rock?). Additionally, the present, about 4 Southern White ladies at an Atlanta-based design agency, was groundbreaking throughout its run from 1986-1993. Like Golden Ladies, not solely had been the lead roles all ladies ages 30 and older — a Hollywood rarity nonetheless — however many episodes boldly explored points like misogyny, faith, psychological sickness, homophobia, racism and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. All to hundreds of thousands of viewers tuning in each week.

The truth that the present continues to be fairly humorous upon rewatch is owed, largely, to the long-lasting authentic solid. You may have the late Dixie Carter because the agency’s whip-smart and passionate speech-maker president Julia; Delta Burke as Julia’s hilariously self-centered former magnificence queen sister Suzanne; Jean Good as big-hearted Charlene; and Annie Potts as sardonic single mother Mary Jo. Rounding out the solid was the late, nice Meshach Taylor as Anthony Bouvier, the present’s solely Black central character, who goes from being the agency’s supply particular person to full associate all through the present. Each Taylor and Burke garnered Emmy nominations.

The play transports these characters to shortly earlier than the 2020 election, proper earlier than the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines started. However what begins as a promising premise fails to repay attributable to some unusually dated references, shallow makes an attempt to humanize/rework MAGA supporters and a common lack of specificity about time and placement.

Designing Women
It’s Designing Ladies e book membership time with Mary Jo, Cleo and Haley.

A few examples: Because of Julia’s new weblog, the agency is now receiving threatening telephone calls — one caller guarantees to deliver an AK-47 to their workplace — which the characters shrug off. Is nobody involved that somebody may usher in a gun, as occurs nearly each week on this nation now? Have they not already had “mass shooter occasion” coaching like most workplace employees as of late? I assume it’s not humorous in the event that they take it severely, however then why embrace that in any respect?

Additionally, as highly effective as Julia’s speeches might be, I think they’re not sufficient to make a MAGA devotee ranting about “cease the steal” magically resolve to melt his views.

Whereas this play mocks Trump in the way in which some did in 2016 — there’s a quip about The Apprentice, for example — it fails to really account for a way horrifying he was and nonetheless is because the face of a motion centered on White supremacy. I used to be reminded of Ronan Farrow’s tweet in regards to the Golden Globes tribute to Woody Allen in 2014: “Missed the Woody Allen tribute — did they put the half the place a lady publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 earlier than or after Annie Corridor?’”

When you’re nonetheless making enjoyable of how Trump and his cronies are simply foolish and dumb, you’re lacking the affect of his administration’s disregard for democratic norms and the quite a few threats to the well-being of ladies, folks of colour, immigrants and the LGBTQIA group. We’re now seeing some alarming penalties, such because the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and plenty of say the Supreme Court docket will proceed to make issues worse. However hey, keep in mind how rib-tickling it was again when Trump tweeted “covfefe?’”

Designing Women
Former Magnificence queen Suzanne Sugarbaker (Beth Beyer) was a fan favourite of the sitcom. Right here, she exhibits off a superb costume designed by Dr. L. Nyrobi N. Moss.

The elements of this present that work finest are when the dynamic ladies Bloodworth-Thomason created work together, push one another’s buttons and love one another regardless of their flaws. Whereas Bloodworth-Thomason continues to be a really gifted comedic author, one wonders if she might need benefitted from hiring some co-writers to assist fill out the replace and make the present really feel actually edgy and present. How this might need come alive with a complete various writing staff, together with some Gen Z-ers and millennials — and perhaps a handful of Atlanta locals to make this resonate with an Atlanta viewers. (The present initially premiered in Arkansas, the place a scarcity of ATL specificity might not have been as obtrusive.)

The opposite drawback is that it’s a two-hour present structured as if it had been nonetheless a 22-minute sitcom. Which means that the stakes are the identical in scale as a sitcom-length present, which implies that all the pieces feels dragged out.

It’s a disgrace that the story doesn’t maintain collectively higher, too, as a result of the solid is pleasant — notably Katherine LaNasa as Julia, who’s so spot-on, she made me wonder if the ghost of Dixie Carter had come again to own her. There’s terrific bodily comedy throughout a quarantined love scene between Julia and her new romantic curiosity, Wynn (Robin Bloodworth), that performs out on the massive glass window of the store and will get more and more excessive.

The play additionally provides a few new characters to the combination. There’s Haley (a superb Eve Krueger), Charlene’s cousin and a Bernice stand-in, who’s in a poisonous, fundamentalist Christian marriage. And there’s Cleo, Anthony’s cousin, who has a fraction of the strains of different characters however, as inhabited with the sharp comedic timing of actor Tiffany Porter, earns a number of the evening’s largest laughs. Sadly, as the one Black, homosexual character, Cleo additionally bears the burden — as written by Bloodworth-Thomason — of getting to be the one one to clarify to others why sure issues are problematic.

Designing Women
Romance is within the air with Julia’s new love curiosity, Wynn Dollarhyde (Robin Bloodworth).

None of this could suggest that there aren’t extremely efficient and cathartic methods to course of darkish instances by comedic artwork; limitless examples exist. And you’ll see the skeleton body of the bitingly humorous satire which may have been right here in regards to the Sugarbaker cohort reacting to a world gone fully off the rails. How may these characters have been pressured to confront a few of their very own biases and hang-ups? How may they’ve tailored to the speedy development and gentrification throughout Atlanta? However for now, give me a rerun of the unique TV present any day.


Alexis Hauk is a member of the American Theatre Critics Affiliation. She has written and edited for quite a few newspapers, alt-weeklies, commerce publications and nationwide magazines together with Time, The Atlantic, Psychological Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian. An Atlanta native, Alexis has additionally lived in Boston, Washington D.C., New York Metropolis and Los Angeles. By day, she works in well being communications. By evening, she enjoys masking the humanities and being Batman.