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Curvy Widow: Cougar on the make

Cybill Shepherd gives the Alliance a woman unloosed

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There should be a rule of thumb for any one-person live show starring a famous celebrity: The material should be as entertaining, if not more so, than simply having the audience ask the celebrity questions for an hour and a half.

Watching Cybill Shepherd labor to play the eponymous narrator of Curvy Widow, Bobby Goldman's autobiographical monologue play, I frequently wished the Alliance Hertz Stage was simply hosting an evening with the TV and movie star. Shepherd has a memoir titled Cybill Disobedience: How I Survived Beauty Pageants, Elvis, Sex, Bruce Willis, Lies, Marriage, Motherhood, Hollywood and the Irrepressible Urge to Say What I Think. To hear Shepherd dish on such topics for two hours sounds far more fun than Curvy Widow was, and possibly the actress would be more relaxed and confident.

Directed by Broadway veteran Scott Schwartz, the world premiere of Curvy Widow features a 55-year-old female executive as she recounts her strange, frustrating quest to find companionship in the modern dating scene. Having wed a much older man at the age of 21 and facing the end of her relationship with her longtime (married) boyfriend, she gives herself the handle "Curvy Widow" on websites and leaps into the dating pool, going out with 64 men in four months.

Star of The Last Picture Show, "Moonlighting" and her own self-titled sitcom, Shepherd looks so good it's hard to imagine any date not falling at her feet, which makes the Widow's misadventures and rejections strain credulity a bit. Shepherd proves game for the role's physical business – striking dramatic poses, showing off her blue-jeaned derriere, sprawling on the furniture – but visibly struggles with the text. It wasn't just her difficulty with her lines on opening night, but that she projected a general feeling of effort and work, and not the character's personality. Perhaps Shepherd will feel more at ease further into the run, but on opening night, she simply seemed in over her head.

Stronger material would have helped, but Curvy Widow presents merely superficial insights that build to familiar epiphanies. The play suffers in comparison to Bad Dates, another thinly disguised monologue play written by a successful woman about the Manhattan dating scene. Twice produced with Shelby Hofer at area playhouses, Bad Dates gives its heroine plenty of quirky anecdotes about courtship and her work place. In contrast, the Curvy Widow's job is a little vague – she's something of a "fixer" to powerful clients like George Clooney in Michael Clayton – and she doesn't share particularly interesting stories.

Apart from an initial date with a backpack-wearing weirdo at a museum, most of the dates become a generalized blur of crabby misogyny, enlivened with raunchy wisecracks and observations like, "Men think in straight lines; women think in paisley." Meanwhile, the Widow's proud obsession with her job – she works 16-hour days, seven days a week – seems insufficiently examined. Slideshow effects give the audience plenty to look at, but can't substitute for a strong narrative. Still, a performer with an ingratiating, just-us-girls delivery could connect with audiences enough to make Curvy Widow a hit with the Menopause the Musical crowd.

After taking her second bow at the end of Curvy Widow, Shepherd beamed with relief and jumped into the air with girlish joy. It was so adorable that you have to wonder, why didn't we get to see that Cybill Shepherd for an hour and a half?

Curvy Widow. Through Dec. 16. $50. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Alliance Theatre Hertz Stage, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org.

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