Ugly reality intrudes on fantasy in ‘Bunnies,’ now premiering in Weehawken

bunnies hoersch review

PHOTOS BY CHASE NEWHART

From left, Serena Marie Williams, Irene Rivera and Ryan Natalino co-star in Hudson Theatre Works’ “Bunnies,” through Oct. 24.

After a year of virtual performances, Hudson Theatre Works brings live theater back to Weehawken with “Bunnies,” its first production of its 2021-22 season. The riveting drama, set in 1973, takes place in the locker room of Manhattan’s Playboy Club as a small group of women share the minutiae of their lives as well as a series of harrowing experiences, at a time when the nascent idea of feminism often clashed with sexism, ageism and tabloid headlines about the Mr. Goodbar murder.

Playwright Joanne Hoersch based her script on her own experiences working as a Playboy Bunny in the ’70s, serving drinks to Playboy Club patrons while wearing skimpy outfits. “Bunnies” received a staged reading at Hudson Theatre Works’ PlayWorks festival in 2016 and a staged reading at Jersey City Theater Center, but this is its first full production.

Production manager/scene designer Gregory Erbach uses a background projection and a few simple props — some lockers, benches and stools — to transform the open stage at The Wilson School into the Playboy Mansion’s locker room. There, in keeping with Playboy’s multi-racial hiring policy of the time, the Latina Lottie (Irene Rivera), African-American Bonita (Serena Marie Williams) and white Janice (Ryan Natalino) are winding down at the end of the shift.

The Mr. Goodbar murder — the horrific story of schoolteacher Roseann Quinn, stabbed to death by her date after a night at a bar — screams from the headlines of The Daily News, making Janice apprehensive about going back to her apartment alone. That leads to a larger discussion between the women about their fears and dreams, as well as the challenges and rewards of their profession as “servers” in a place designed to cater to male fantasies.

Ryan Natalino, left, and Irene Rivera in “Bunnies.”

Bonita is the newly crowned “Bunny of the Year,” giving her a few perks that the others envy. Lottie is the Bunnies’ union rep (Playboy bunnies were members of the AFL-CIO, we learn) and talks about protecting her co-workers and perhaps finding a path forward for herself in union activism. Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm are invoked as proof that society may be changing.

“There’s a power shift out there,” says Janice, “and it’s making people nervous.”

But as the women unburden themselves, it’s clear that those hopes and dreams remain as much a fantasy as the high heel-clad, bunny-tailed personae they create for their customers. Bonita, we learn, feels trapped in a submissive relationship with one of her regulars, a man who keeps showering her with huge tips as a way to subjugate and demean her. Janice worries about gaining weight and aging out of the job, noting that airline stewardesses face mandatory retirement at age 32.

“Yes, but they’re on strike and going to win,” replies Lottie, vowing to use her power in the union to protect her co-workers. But the women also know that Margo (Mandy Evans-Brown), one of their co-workers, is facing imminent dismissal because she’s turned 37 and no longer exudes the youthful allure expected of a Bunny.

While the nearly two-hour play proceeds without intermission, Hoersch has structured it into three acts.

In the first, we meet Lottie, Bonita and Janice and get a glimpse into the gritty reality behind the glamor of the Playboy brand.

Serena Marie Williams, left, and Irene Rivera in “Bunnies.”

In the second, we meet Kekkie (Bess Miller), a 21-year old Alabama transplant who’s auditioning for a job as a Bunny. Adding insult to injury, she has spent the night “tailing” and being trained by Margo, the Bunny she’s about to replace. Kekkie exudes Southern naivete and ignorance — as well as flashes of racism and homophobia — as she prances about the locker room, prattling on about her little boy back in Alabama and her search for a rich husband. She gets drunk on whiskey shots, wears the patience of the other Bunnies as thin as it will stretch, and tests the bounds of this unorthodox “family.”

In the third act, we meet Margo, on her way out of her job and the other Bunnies’ lives after having been fired by management. Mandy Evans-Brown plays the role with a bit of a Boston (or New England) accent, a stark contrast to the urbanity of Bonita and Lottie and the rural rough edges of Kekkie. With only Bonita (and the audience) as witnesses, Margo shares a long monologue about her working days in the corporate world and the ugly incident that took her innocence and drove her to the job at Playboy.

As powerfully as Evans-Brown delivers her performance, it feels as though this part of the play was tacked on as an afterthought. No one questions that workplace sexual abuse remains a crisis-level problem; the likes of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Andrew Cuomo and R. Kelly remind us daily that women still don’t get to play on a level playing field. But Margo — dressed in street clothes and so different from the other Bunnies — seems to have wandered onto the stage from another play.

Even with that qualm, “Bunnies” delivers a passionate night of theater, leavened with a few laughs but bristling with big ideas about sexism and ageism. Ultimately, hope succumbs to reality: Janice knows she’s just a few years from following Margo out the door; Lottie admits that women will never have positions of power in her union; Margo’s victimization goes unreported and unpunished; and Kekkie seems doomed to repeat the same sad cycle for another generation.

Frank Licato’s direction impresses for its attention to detail. The Wilson School theater is quite intimate — the actors are practically on top of you — and the entire cast stayed in character for every second of the performance. The show communicates as much by facial expressions and body language as it does by dialogue.

“There’s sex and death and what else is there?” asks one of the Bunnies. What indeed?

“Bunnies” runs Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at The Theatre at The Wilson School (80 Hauxhurst Ave., Weehawken) through Oct. 24. Tickets are available at hudsontheatreworks.org. Proof of vaccination is required for entry and patrons are required to wear masks at all times.

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