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Theatre Review: Horizon’s ‘Designing Women’ stage reboot takes its time finding the laughs

The cast of “Designing Women” at Horizon Theatre (from left, standing) Luis R. Hernandez, Lane Carlock, Beth Beyer, Joanna Daniels, Robin Bloodworth; (left to right. seated) Eve Kruger, Katherine Lanasa, and Tiffany Porter.

The old maxim “comparison is the thief of joy” is what immediately came to mind while watching Horizon Theatre’s stage reboot of the classic sitcom “Designing Women.”

It took most of the first act to stop thinking about the indelible performances of Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart in the series and start enjoying the charms – and laughs – from this admirable ensemble of actors. They are saddled with a show of two-halves: a first act that drags and, frankly, isn’t very funny and a second act that is a laugh-riot. If 30 minutes of the first act had been shaved off and this was a 90 minute romp with no intermission, I’d be writing a rave, but getting this show aloft and soaring almost makes it crash and burn.

If you didn’t watch the series in its 1986-1993 run – or in countless reruns since – here’s a brief recap: “Designing Women” is set in Atlanta at Sugarbaker & Associates interior design firm. The firm is run by Julia Sugarbaker – infamous for her droll comments and epic rants; her sister Suzanne – a spoiled, racist, oft-married beauty queen; Mary Jo Shively – the overly self-conscious and unlucky in love designer; Charlene Frazier – the Arkansas yokel and receptionist; and Anthony Bouvier – a Black ex-convict hired as a delivery driver who eventually becomes a partner in the firm.

Created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the sitcom was a smash and timely for the majority of its run, dispelling myths about Southern women, culture, and stereotypes along the way. It was political, feminist, race-conscious, LGBTQ-friendly, and often incredibly moving. The show tackled subjects like AIDS, fat shaming, and misogyny head-on. It was revolutionary television.

Bloodworth-Thomason wrote this play in 2020 during the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice protests, and the vitriolic presidential election. She started wondering what the ladies of Sugarbaker & Associates would have to say about the state of affairs, and “Designing Women: 2020 – The Big Split” was born. Even the title is too long.

I have nothing but praise for the actors, who are miraculously able to channel both the characters AND the actors who portrayed them in the show. Katherine Lanasa has that elegant, whip-smart, no-nonsense air embodying Julia, while the always fabulous Joanna Daniels has honed that deadpan delivery – along with a few profanities we never got to hear on network TV – we’re all familiar with in Mary Jo.

Beth Beyer’s flouncy, petulant Suzanne also seems to have been inspired by Megan Mullally’s Karen Walker from “Will & Grace,” which somehow works. Anthony is now a lawyer and has sold his share in the firm to his sister, Cleo (Tiffany Porter), an out-and-proud queer woman who holds her own in this house of white women.

It’s disappointing that Charlene (Lane Carlock) is on a trip with her husband for most of the play, so her evangelical sister, Haley (Eve Krueger), is filling in at the Sugarbaker receptionist desk.

As I mentioned earlier, the first act of “Designing Women” is so busy resetting the table and bringing the audience up to speed, that it just falls flat. The jokes about Trump and the MAGA crowd are stale and predictable, Suzanne’s umpteenth divorce dilemma feels like a retread (and Luis R. Hernandez’s talent is wasted as her soon-to-be-ex trying to repossess her breast implants), and Haley’s submission to her likely gay husband is under-developed. That leaves Mary Jo to complain about going to therapy, and Cleo to mostly shake her head in disbelief and roll her eyes at Haley’s church-induced homophobia.

But then we come back from intermission for act two, and Bloodworth-Thomason reminds us just how funny “Designing Women” was and can still be. The Sugarbakers are forced into quarantine and Julia and Suzanne aren’t on speaking terms when it’s revealed Suzanne once slept with Trump.

Lanasa’s Julia has an inspired – and hilarious – quarantine hookup with her new beau (a frisky Robin Bloodworth) through a window. Kruger’s Haley unwittingly imbibes spiked punch and her inner feminist is set drunkenly free. Daniels’ Mary Jo tale of meeting her ex-husband’s wife at his gravesite is a side-splitter. The highlight of the second is Porter’s Cleo, whose takedown of Suzanne’s racism and dismantling of the happy slave trope in “Gone With the Wind,” is one of those dramatic moments Bloodworth-Thomason used to work so masterfully into the series. Porter summons a deep, angry exhaustion that is palpable.

Things get so tense that Julia and Suzanne decide to close Sugarbaker & Associates forever. That is until Carlock’s Charlene returns just in time for a monologue that reminds the fractured Sugarbaker family why they’ve been so close for so many years.

Hats off to director Heidi McKerley for finding the sweet spot of homage and current in her direction and set designers Isabel Curley-Clay and Moriah Curley-Clay get a chef’s kiss for their thoughtful update of the Sugarbakers’ familiar office. If you’re on the front row like I was, you’re basically in the office, which was a treat.

As a longtime “Designing Women” fan, my plea to Bloodworth-Thomason would be to trim and hone and bring the first half up to the hilarity of the second. Even if you didn’t watch the show back in the 80s, these characters are ingrained. Turn them loose, give them better zingers, and this would be a triumph. As it stands now, getting to the good stuff is as slow as Southern molasses.

Designing Women” is running until Nov. 6. Get tickets and more information here.

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