I remember hearing Jack Lemmon discuss his part in the classic Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot, divulging that a core ingredient of the best comedies is an element of deceit, some facade just waiting to unravel. The time between when the lie begins and it falls apart is fertile ground for all kinds of funny things to happen, the suspense of waiting for the moment when “the jig is up” adding to the effect. Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, in its final week at the Westside Theatre after opening last fall, takes infidelity, one of the most tried and true wells for comedy (see the sitcom “Friends” and Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break!” argument that was a running gag for years), and pairs it with former “That Girl” Marlo Thomas and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” lead Greg Mullavey to mine the rather sordid subject for laughs and uncomfortable situations.
Clever Little Lies begins after a game of tennis between father and son in a locker room where Billy confides to his father Bill about an affair that he is having with a personal trainer. Billy, who is married to Jane and has an infant child, swears his father to secrecy, but it doesn’t take long for Alice, Bill’s wife, to sense that something is wrong. Alice takes it upon herself to invite her son and daughter-in-law over to confront the issue, and what ensues is a night of revelations that leave everyone surprised. It turns out that the “lies” of the title are neither “little” nor “clever” after all.
Marlo Thomas plays Alice with a light touch, enjoyably sneaky as she butts in on problems within her son’s marriage but sly enough to get away with most anything. Ms. Thomas knows how to play this material to land every laugh, and the play comes alive only upon her entrance in the second scene when she grills her husband to extract information about her son, knowing full well that he promised not to say anything. She bypasses this by throwing out all kinds of guesses, quickly followed by, “Don’t say anything if I’m right!” Ms. Thomas turns a character who could be quite a harpy and unlikable into the kind of quick-witted matriarch anyone would be fortunate to have on their team, insidious as she may be.
Greg Mullavey plays her husband Bill, powerless to resist falling under his wife’s control but instilled with a loyalty and understanding that only comes with time. Mr. Mullavey is just as skilled as Ms. Thomas in eliciting laughter from the audience, some of the biggest using his deadpan expression when faced with surprising facts about his wife and son’s secrets. I really bought Mr. Mullavey and Ms. Thomas as a married couple, and it is their chemistry and delivery that makes the piece work.
I’m not quite sure what to make of George Merrick as the couple’s son, Billy, or Kate Wetherhead as his wife, Jane. Mr. Merrick is quite attractive, but he acts mostly with a scowl and furrowed brow; his intensity works against the comedic qualities of the writing, and his timing is often off in a way that kills lines that would be funny if played differently. Take for example his first scene in the locker room when he confesses his affair to his father; Mr. Merrick rushes into a forced stage cry where he covers his face, his timing so abrupt that at first it appears that he is laughing. It’s hard for me to believe that two people as enjoyable to be around as Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mullavey could have such a jerk as a son, and that’s exactly how Mr. Merrick comes off. Ms. Wetherhead as his wife seems to think going nasal is a part of playing comedy, her voice often pitched higher than expected, though she at least has more to work with once her husband’s indiscretions are revealed; still, I found her only mildly more bearable than her on stage spouse, a most unlikeable couple that deserves each other. It’s almost as if Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead, who have not a thimbleful of chemistry, are from another play or are performing in some acting exercise in which they were carelessly paired up together.
Director David Saint keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, seemingly knowing that it’s his showbiz veterans that will carry the piece, though it’s hard to understand how some glaring flaws in the production appear to have passed by him unchanged. The scene in the car between Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead is startlingly stale, and the vehicle is positioned at an angle on the stage that doesn’t line up with the rear projection footage. Why bother with having the car and the background footage if it is going to be handled so poorly? At least the set of Alice and Bill’s living room designed by Yoshi Tanokura looks inviting, tastefully upscale with a lived in appearance. The majority of the action takes place on this lovely set, which makes the scene in the car and opening scene at the tennis club locker room feel like cheap afterthoughts in comparison.
Still, Clever Little Lies is a cute, compact show with several laugh out loud moments. Though I think it resolves itself a bit too easily at the end and half the cast was not to my liking, it has the feel of a jumbo-sized sitcom, appropriate as it is a great vehicle for its two veteran stars of popular television comedies from the ’60s and ’70s. At just under an hour and a half in length, Clever Little Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, though it is the crackling chemistry and timing of its stars from yesteryear you’ll remember when it’s all over.
**/ out of ****
Clever Little Lies continues through to January 24th upstairs in the Westside Theatre at 407 W. 43rd St. (at 9th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.cleverlittlelies.com/