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Women are funny, and it's all a matter of Childs' play

There are people who don't think that women can be funny. Jen Childs certainly isn't one of them.

THERE ARE people who don't think that women can be funny. Jen Childs certainly isn't one of them.

After all, it wouldn't make sense for someone who is generally acknowledged as Philly's first lady of theatrical comedy to suggest such a thing. Besides, if it was true, she wouldn't have had any reason to conjure "It's My Party: The Women and Comedy Project," her latest production for 1812 Productions, the local company she co-founded in 1997. It runs through May 19 at Plays & Players Theatre, in Center City.

More than just another theatrical project for the actress-writer-director-producer, "It's My Party" represents a sizable chunk of her recent past.

"I've been working on it for two years," she said. "It's been a huge part of my life."

The show, she explained, "looks at how women use comedy in their lives to deal with different situations, and how their use of comedy changes, or doesn't, as they age." She added that she didn't have to look far for inspiration.

"I started it because my mother turned 70 the same year my daughter turned 7," she explained, "and I stood right in the middle of them agewise and watched how they both were funny in really different ways.

"My mother is funnier at 70 than she's ever been in her life. My daughter is actively trying to figure out how she's funny, and 'Why is it funny when The Three Stooges do that, but not when I do that?' "

She even looked in the mirror. "I worked with girlfriends - myself included - who are aging out of certain roles, watching this kind of sense of humor we develop about ourselves as we age. It's just a very interesting thing."

The production's title suggests a historical survey of women comics - Lucille Ball, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, etc. But "It's My Party" paints a much broader picture.

"I did at least a dozen workshops with local performers and with nonperformers, and held interviews with 50 to 70 women [discussing] their views on humor," she said. "I've interviewed some professional storytellers and stand-up [comics] and writers. But mostly, it's been a product of interviewing everyday women, realizing that every woman has a story, and every woman is uniquely funny."

Not that she neglected the giants of the field.

"There's a big thing in there about becoming our mothers, how sometimes it's inevitable," noted Childs. "For that, I interviewed Lucy Arnaz about her mom [Lucille Ball]."

There will likely be many more projects springing from Childs' fertile imagination. But one suspects that "It's My Party" will always have a special place in her heart.

"It's a piece I'm very excited about and it's different from anything I've ever done," she said. "It's the biggest project I've worked on in some time. I feel it represents a really different step for me."

Graham goes 'North'

"North of the Boulevard" finds Graham - whose credits include "The Belmont Avenue Social Club" and "Philly Fan" - covering familiar themes, the hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations of the working class primary among them.

All the action takes place in a shoddy car-repair shop on an equally downbeat stretch of highway in an unnamed locale that we can assume is one of Delaware County's aging, inner-ring suburbs. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the responses of three working-class friends - two white, one African-American - after the fortunes of a fourth member of the group (the father of one them) take a turn for the worse (to say the least).

But the play, which is slathered in f-bombs and other coarse language, is as much about the author giving voice to the many un-PC views and concerns held by a demographic group - the aforementioned working-class males - on a variety of societal subjects.

Because it's a Bruce Graham piece, the laughs come early and often as the four characters ruminate on the curveballs that life insists on throwing them. And while there are a number of great lines there, the second act takes a dark and even-more cynical turn as it heads toward the final blackout.

The four actors - Scott Greer, as shop owner Trip; Bruce McCann, as the emotionally beaten-down Larry; Lindsay Smiling, as the scheming security guard Bear; and Bill Rahill, as Larry's permanently pissed-off father, Zee - are uniformly impressive. Each handles Graham's ricocheting lines with superb timing, and their portrayals all have a ring of truth.

But Greer is especially compelling and appealing as he deftly renders a man whose morality is, much to his dismay, being molded by circumstance. The actors are at all times bolstered by Matt Pfeiffer's knowing direction.

The fact that Theatre Exile's performance space was once an actual garage adds to the program's convincing grittiness and sense of despair (as does the corpse of a Japanese compact that dominates the "stage").

We can't say that this is Graham's finest work - we'll always be partial to "Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar & Grille." But old fans will certainly find plenty to enjoy and contemplate, while those new to the playwright's ouvre will get a nice feel for his facile blending of low comedy and high anxiety.