In its first few moments, sitcom-style comedy “Clever Little Lies” grabs audience attention right away, with one of the most revealing wardrobe changes you’ll ever see on stage. It is done modestly but just provocatively enough to elicit vocal appreciation from amused patrons.
The fast-paced play, starring Richard Kline of TV comedy classic “Three’s Company,” and written by Tony-winner Joe DiPietro, is at Penguin Rep in Stony Point (Rockland County) through July 22. (For tickets and information, call 845-786-2873 or visit PenguinRep.org.)
When we meet Bill Sr. (Kline) and adult son Billy (Jordan Sobel), both attorneys, they are in a country club locker room getting dressed after a hard-fought tennis match. Dad is gloating over the whupping he just gave Junior, whose excuse for his distracted play surprises and displeases, in equal measure, the old man: Billy, who’s married and has an infant daughter, admits to having an affair with his gym’s hot personal trainer. She’s all of 23. That prompts Senior to advise Junior, “Twenty-three isn’t a person yet—it’s an age. You have fallen in love with an age.” Billy asks his father to pledge not to tell his mother.
The 80-minute production is performed in one act, without intermission. After the opening scene, almost all the action takes place in the living room of Billy’s parents. It’s a finely detailed set, traditionally furnished with heavy fabric couch and matching chairs, a panoply of potted plants, miniature picture frames dotting the back wall, a well-stocked bookcase, and a built-in bar. After the opening performance, writer Joe DiPietro remarked, “That set was beautiful. They did a great job.”
In addition to the clever little lines sprinkled through the script by the author, one of the delights of “Clever Little Lies” is the Martini-dry delivery mastered by Mr. Kline. Without saying a word, he can land a big laugh, exerting little more than a squint or the raising of an eyebrow.
When Bill returns home from the tennis match, wife and amateur sleuth Alice quickly deduces from his unusually quiet behavior that something is amiss with their son’s marriage.
Playing off Mr. Kline’s subtlety, veteran Broadway actor Jana Robbins embraces big and brassy Alice with brio. It works, for the most part, because Alice, as with all the characters, is written broadly.
Alice is a bookstore owner who rattles off a machine-gun monologue in which she bemoans the trendy literary tastes of her clientele. She bloviates about how today’s book buyers would rather “drink coffee from a mug with a picture of Dickens on it” than read him, while they devour modern best-sellers like, as she calls it, “Sixty Shades of Grey.”
Determined to find out what’s going on with her son, Alice springs into action by inviting her son and his wife Jane (Bridget Gabbe), with infant daughter Emily in tow, that same night for coffee, cheesecake and cocktails—on the rocks, to match the marriage. Alice intends to get to the bottom of BIllygate by chatting with him about, you know, just “this and that.”
If Alice is all fire and brimstone in the early scenes, she shifts into a more nuanced mode later in the story. That’s when she abruptly divulges a shocking secret of her own. At that point, the play pivots from mostly light-hearted to mostly a commentary on the grey areas that shade love and marriage.
As the young couple, Ms. Gabbe and Mr. Sobel make an attractive and believable pair. Billy is fairly neurotic, and delusional in thinking he’s truly in love with his personal trainer. Jane is the anchor who will need to keep him from floating adrift if the relationship is to stay moored.
Mr. DiPietro won a Tony for his book of Tony-winning Best Musical “Memphis.” He also is the author of the long-running, record-setting off-Broadway musical revue “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”
In “Clever Little Lies,” he isn’t trying to be particularly profound or rip-roaringly funny. His métier is observational humor. He reminds us that, in its earliest stages, marriage is a bumpy ride whose occasional shocks need to be absorbed and overcome if a couple expects to make it further down the road.
Jane is an earnest young mom who obsesses over advice and factoids about motherhood that she reads in various “studies” found online.
She and Billy spar over whether they will hire a nanny, as they had agreed upon, so she can return to her career as an editor, or whether she will stay at home with Emily, which is her new preference.
The tension between them even erupts in a minor battle over Billy’s adamant refusal to eat cheesecake, in favor of chewing on cashews. It bemuses Jane why a “married straight man” has become so obsessed about staying in shape that he works out several times a week at the gym with a personal trainer.
In contrast to their troubled young love, Billy’s parents, by all appearances, are role models of how to keep a relationship going for the long haul.
Bill Sr. still picks his wife up at the airport! He tells Billy that searching for happiness is a fool’s errand. “Happy is overrated,” he says. “Here’s how life works. Some of it’s good and some of it’s terrible and no matter what hand you’re dealt, you find the happy in that.”
Sounds reasonable, but do they all live happily ever after? There’s only one way to find out. If you like diverting live theater spiced with some serious, relatable themes, I think you’ll find the happy in “Clever Little Lies.”
P.S. Joe DiPietro told me his next project is a musical about Princess Diana titled “Diana.” It opens for a month-long run in February 2019 in Southern California’s La Jolla Playhouse. He wrote the book and co-wrote lyrics with David Bryan, who also composed the music. Mr. DiPietro said the story focuses on Diana and Prince Charles working their way through a troubled marriage before the eyes of the world.
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