Clever Little Lies (Westside Theatre – NYC)

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.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

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.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
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.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
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.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
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.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
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/

Nice Work If You Can Get It (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)

Nice Work If You Can Get It premiered on Broadway in 2012 and ran for just over a year. With a book by Joe DiPietro taking inspiration from works by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, Nice Work If You Can Get It was created in order to create a show around songs from the George and Ira Gershwin songbook while they were still under copyright and able to generate royalties for the estate. The story created to fit around the songs involves a trio of bootleggers hiding booze in the presumed vacant apartment of a Manhattan playboy at the height of Prohibition. Throw in a spoiled socialite, a crusading Prohibitionist, and a rather dizzy Senator, add dancing and that great Gershwin music, and you wind up with this delightful production that closes the summer Weathervane Playhouse season.

 

Photo: Adam Karsten – Patrick Clements and Molly Griggs
 
Patrick Clements is the rich but rather spoiled and flighty Jimmy Winter. All he really has to do is show up and be handsome and suave, but that wouldn’t be much of a challenge for Mr. Clements; he dances like a fiend and proves himself adept at physical comedy. His voice is velvety and warm, proving that he is a real triple threat. I would think he would be perfect casting for a farce like Noises Off at some point once he’s done wooing all the ladies as the lead in every other show.

Molly Griggs is Billie Bendix, the bootlegger destined to fall in love with Jimmy. Ms. Griggs is perfectly sweet in the role though the part comes off as underwritten to me. She gives off a good sense of camaraderie with her fellow bootleggers in the play, and once again she wears her period garb well. I just wish she had more of the kind of funny moments reserved for the supporting cast in the show.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)
 
Kayla Walsh is pure trouble as spoiled Eileen Evergreen, and she milks every moment for all that it’s worth. This show is one that gives all the best moments to the supporting characters, and Ms. Walsh pounces on each moment she has to draw attention to herself. She steals every scene, but the book appears to be written with that as the intent. She frolics in a bathtub then slips through a trap door in the bottom to emerge elsewhere on stage headlining the song “Delishious,” the title of which may just as well apply to Ms. Walsh as it does her character. I can see her playing Vera Charles in Mame, or even Rose in Gypsy at some point.

Ms. Walsh’s co-star Ryan Metzger would be a perfect Herbie to her Rose, if any theatrical producers out there are reading this. Mr. Metzger plays Cookie McGee, one of the trio of bootleggers in the play. He masquerades as a butler for most of the story, saying all of the kinds of things people in service would love to say but wouldn’t for fear of getting fired. But Cookie isn’t really a butler, so he can really dish out the zingers and sarcastic remarks because he just doesn’t care, and Mr. Metzger is the perfect person to deliver them. His timing is down and voice carries just the right kind of intonation that can generate laughter even if you didn’t quite get what he said; you would know that it was funny just by the way it sounded, and so you laugh. Sure, the script gave him the lines, but it takes someone like Mr. Metzger to hit them out of the park.

Layne Roate plays Duke Mahoney, the third member of Billie’s bootlegging trio. Mr. Roate plays the wan and mopey secondary part with great skill even though he doesn’t have a lot of material from which to work. I really felt sorry for him when he was thrust into pretending to be a cook, perhaps because I can’t cook and having to make a large meal like he did would’ve caused me to break out. He has a kind of helplessness in the part that is endearing rather than annoying as it could’ve been had it been approached differently. After seeing Mr. Roate in four productions this summer at Weathervane Playhouse, I definitely think this was his best performance.

Other notable performances are by Rebecca Keck as the domineering pro-Prohibition crusader Estonia Dulworth, and Barbe Helwig as Millicent Winter, who arrives near the end of the show, revealing a secret that stops everyone in their tracks. The only slightly sore spot is Kirk Paisley as Senator Max Evergreen. Mr. Paisley knows his lines and his blocking, but he seems to be listening for his cues rather than listening to what the characters around him are saying. He seems to express only one emotion – that of surprise – and so I didn’t buy that he was really interested so much in what was going on. It’s not like he wrecked the play; he just stood out against all of the terrific performances going on around him

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Scenic design by Jeremy Hollis
 
Jeremy Hollis’s set is impressive in size and design, opulent enough to pass for an upper class apartment but slightly off-kilter to be just right for some of the zany events in the plot. Some of the design embellishments aren’t perfectly symmetrical, and they shouldn’t be; this was an apartment that was rarely used and probably due for an overhaul anyhow. It still looks quite fancy and of the elite, however, and the way that the bathtub and has been integrated to serve the machinations of the story is quite impressive. As struck as I was by Mr. Hollis’s set for Dial “M” For Murder, this one is even better, laid out in such a way that every seat in the house is a good one for seeing the action.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)
 
Karen Sieber’s choreography is quite athletic and highly polished, definitely not for the faint of heart to tackle. She puts the cast through its paces with some tap routines that are quite engaging yet indicative of the period, and the cast seems to be having a grand time dancing up a storm rather than showing exhaustion like most of the audience would be were we to have to attempt the same feats. This is the kind of dancing that commands attention and applause, and Ms. Sieber is to be congratulated.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Patrick Clements and Molly Griggs
 
Director Adam Karsten has a firm grasp on this material and keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. Mr. Karsten artfully navigates that often tenuous transition to song from dialogue, and he keeps the tone light and cheerful. As a result, Nice Work If You Can Get It emerges as a real crowd pleaser, and one of the better examples of the “jukebox musical” genre. Perhaps this work is better than most jukebox musicals because most (if not all) of the Gershwin songs included were showtunes already, having been in shows of the day and popularized as standards since. People of all ages are familiar with quite a few of the songs already from their use in films and commercials; they aren’t “plot” songs like in most of the shows we have now, so the audience can just enjoy them rather than listen carefully for things pertinent to the story.

The audience at the performance I attended was engaged throughout and was having a grand time, as did I; there isn’t much more you can ask for in a production this inspired.

***/ out of ****

Nice Work If You Can Get It continues through to August 8th at the Weathervane Playhouse at 100 Price Road in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/nice-work-can-get/