If you didn’t know better, you might think that the comedic sketches of Ruth Draper's Monologues are a one-woman commentary on life in Los Angeles today. Three ladies who lunch unironically ordering raw vegetables at a fancy restaurant? Check. Prancersizing? Check. Juggling the nanny and the puppy and a call from your lover? Check. But the material in Monologues, performed by the ever-fabulous Annette Bening at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse through May 18, was written nearly a century ago.
Draper was clearly a woman ahead of her time — her writings and performances have influenced generations of comedians, including Lily Tomlin and Julia Sweeney. It's refreshing to see Bening, best known for her more serious, Oscar-nominated turns in films like American Beauty and The Kids Are All Right, exercise her comedic chops on a series of over-the-top women.
Bening, who also directs, moves effortlessly among four complex and often silly characters. (Dressed in a slip, the actress changes costumes on stage and seamlessly shifts between roles before your eyes.) In ''A Class in Greek Poise,'' she dons a toga and teaches deep-breathing exercises to a class of overweight ladies—whose green bloomers and bathing suits you can easily imagine. Surely there’s a Santa Monica yoga studio ready to have everyone suit up for a Draper-themed session. In ''A Debutante at a Dance,'' Bening slips into a 1920s gown to ponder the big questions of a late teen's life, like ''Do I have any character?'' She seems to relish playing a woman much younger than herself, as if channeling Lily Tomlin’s little-girl-in-an-oversize-chair character Edith Ann.
Though the final two monologues are perhaps Draper's best known, both concern the high-class problems of wealthy New Yorkers and tend to drag in places. But Bening is perfect as the slightly condescending Mrs. Grimmer in ''Doctors and Diets,'' and her well-bred housewife in ''The Italian Lesson'' could be mistaken for a CEO as she easily rattles off an exhaustive list of household needs without forgetting a single detail. Monologues is a unique double act of rediscovery — of the talented Bening at her most light-hearted and of the brilliant and funny work of Ruth Draper. A–(Tickets: geffenplayhouse.com)