`Angry Housewives' popularity is a mystery worth pondering Angry Housewives Musical comedy by A. M. Collins. Directed by Linda Hartzell.

If this were a review of the opening performance of ``Angry Housewives,'' it would need to say no more than that the show is an amiable and occasionally hilarious farce borrowing heavily from the worst of Neil Simon and the best of ``Saturday Night Live,'' with a few inspired moments all its own. After reporting that this quirky musical with its Irving Berlin-meets-the-Ramones score is an entertaining diversion, there would be little of consequence left to comment upon. This, however, is a review of the 591st performance of the original production of ``Angry Housewives,'' which recently celebrated its second anniversary at the emerging Pioneer Square Theater and long ago became the longest-running show in the history of Seattle.

In the meantime, its notoriety has become national. The show was picked up by the 15-year-old avant-garde Storefront Theatre in Portland, Ore., where it ran for a year, becoming the longest-running production in that city's history as well. Word of mouth in the theatrical community led to subsequent stagings in eight cities to date -- from Chicago to Dallas to Palm Beach, Fla. Still in the offing are Houston; San Diego; Salt Lake City; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Medford, Ore. Universal Studios has optioned the play and is preparing a television pilot for ABC. There have been posters, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.

As a theatrical piece, ``Angry Housewives'' may be a trifle, but as a social phenomenon it is an auspicious event.

The story of the show's utterly unexpected success is almost too corny to report with a straight face. Its author, A. M. Collins (Annamarie, but known to one and all as A. M.), was one of four young and hungry actors (with Bill Ontieros, Grant Walpole, and Nick Flynn, all of whom are still co-directors with Ms. Collins) who founded the Pioneer Square Theater five years ago to give themselves a place to work and to produce world premi`eres of new plays.

After three years their venture had survived, but was mired in debt. The founders had to work regular jobs and moonlight on stage, Collins supporting herself by hawking newspapers in the Pike Place Market.

The Pioneer Square had developed a tradition of running a light musical ``follies'' every year. Collins volunteered to write the 1983 version, although she had never written anything and didn't even know how to type. Her first script was a disaster. With the opening a matter of weeks away, the company was desperate.

Hesitantly, Collins mentioned to director Linda Hartzell that she'd seen a headline in the National Enquirer about angry housewives rioting in a shopping mall. Wouldn't it be funny, she asked, if a group of harried housewives formed a punk group to make a little money and became a hit? Ms. Hartzell, a director without a follies to direct, told her to start writing and promptly scheduled rehearsals. Collins, joined by composer Chad Henry, started scribbling furiously. The actors were still receiving rewrites on opening night: April 23, 1983. Having no idea whether their work was any good at all, Ms. Collins and Mr. Henry stayed backstage during the opening, increasingly soothed as the night progressed by the audience's howls of laughter.

``Angry Housewives'' had been slated for a five-week run, but strong reviews and sold-out houses prompted an extension. Several more followed. Cast members came and went, and the show rolled along. New productions in distant cities added to its reputation. Norman Lear called and asked to see a script. The National Enquirer called to do a story.

Then the Pioneer Square's newfound nose for popularity came into play a second time. The theater produced a version of ``E/R Emergency Room,'' a show whose premi`ere production at Chicago's Organic Theatre had also been a long-running hit. ``E/R Emergency Room'' wound up running for a year in Seattle -- the second-longest run in the city's history. With the combined profits from ``Housewives'' and ``Emergency Room,'' the company purchased a second, larger theater, where ``Housewives'' just moved.

The overwhelming popular demand for ``Angry Housewives'' is a mystery worth pondering. It is the sort of show at which a good time is had by all, certainly. It has some ingenious ideas and blithe, off-the-wall humor -- but it also has a lot of clunky gag lines and maladroit plot construction. Composer Henry has a pleasant way with both pop ballads and punk songs, but there isn't anything in the score that induces people to leave the theater humming.

Director Hartzell has done a good job of coping with cramped stage space and extremely limited technical resources, but the production is still visually crude. All the performers are appealing, but they are working with characters just a shade deeper than cardboard and don't really have the opportunity to do anything memorable.

The suspicion might arise that ``Angry Housewives'' has tapped some deep vein of anger among the nation's homemakers, but that doesn't seem to be so. For one thing, the show is genuinely popular, drawing a heterogeneous audience. For another, only one of the play's characters is a disaffected housewife. Of the others, one is a widow with a nice teen-age son whose problem is simply money, one is a divorc'ee, and one a single working woman with a boyfriend. They aren't outraged at society, merely looking for a gimmick to make some money. Their emergence as a punk band is a creaky plot contrivance, not a statement.

Instead, something different and rather encouraging appears to be taking place. Like many popular phenomena, ``Angry Housewives'' is feeding off its own success. The show initially gained a following from a combination of reasons, no doubt including hometown sentiment in favor of a locally written and produced product. Once it had begun receiving attention, more audiences were drawn by curiosity. The news spread down the freeway to Portland, and the simultaneous runs of two successful productions caused the ripples of curiosity to spread further.

``Angry Housewives'' is not only a popular but a populist phenomenon, a play that has built a national reputation city by city without benefit of a New York performance (although a Manhattan production is now in the planning stages).

With ``Angry Housewives,'' regional theaters and, more to the point, regional theater audiences have created their own hit. The story of American theater for the past two decades has been its increasing decentralization. The source of creativity and new directions is as likely to be Louisville, Ky.; Denver; or Seattle as New York, as the network of regional theaters, few of which existed 20 years ago, has grown stronger and less respectful of the Big Apple's preeminence.

The mania for ``Housewives,'' fueled more by the appetite of the ticket-buyers than the passions of the artists, shows that audiences have joined the rebellion. Ratification from New York tastemakers and national reviewers is no longer mandatory.

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