The Living Theatre’s Maudie and Jane tries to strip life bare of its pretenses, which may be why its heroines inspire most when they’re naked. Jane (Pat Russell), a comely, carefully coiffed fashion editor with a proclivity for onstage bathing, doesn’t seem the type to take pity on the stinky hag she meets in a drugstore. Yet Jane gets progressively more involved with Maudie (Judith Malina), a one-woman symphony of squawks and squeals whose limbs, hair, and conversation constantly explode in unexpected directions. Ultimately, Jane devotes herself to caring for this unwashed, unwell stranger; when she gives the nude Maudie a sponge bath, the older woman is moved to the point of speechlessness, and so are we.
Unfortunately, this marks the bravest moment in an otherwise unaffecting play, written by Luciano Nattino and based on The Diary of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing. That the women foil each other is obvious; we might wish it were less so. We might also wish, for the virtuosic Malina’s sake, that Maudie were a richer character. Stagily acted Jane likewise remains as superficial as the fashion world she occupies. With such psychological voids at its center, much of the production eludes understanding: We wonder why Jane cares for Maudie at all; why she obsessively phones a work colleague; and why she turns the play alarmingly metafictional during its final two minutes. You’d think a piece featuring such exemplary nudity might be more revealing.