At what point do you know a relationship's in trouble? Is it when your best friend, Emma, asks you why you're getting married? Is it when your response is that "real" relationships are about "where you learn to transcend the things you hate about the other person?" Or when you start listening to what "everybody says" not just because you're getting to be That Age--40--but because you're feeling it, too? At first, Brooke Berman's latest play, A Perfect Couple, feels as forced as Isaac and Amy's relationship must be, a collection of well-worn memories held together by the projections of "everybody" involved in the production. As it turns out, Berman's too-perfect structure is an intentional jab at such happiness, one that gives her the "perfect" opportunity to be gleefully glib.
To that task, Maria Mileaf has assembled a top-notch cast, from the comic flirt, Annie McNamara (Emma), to the domineeringly deadpan Dana Eskelson (Amy). She's also had Neil Patel build a set that's up to task with the tone of the piece: a symbolically "perfect" blue outline of a house, its fixings (and feelings) all neatly cupboarded away. Even the men, who Mrs. Berman always seems to have difficulty writing in a balanced way (so much so, that at times, she comes across as a female Neil LaBute), are done justice by James Waterson's gropingly sincere Isaac, and Elan Mose-Bachrach's cheerfully intelligent Josh. Their interactions--even those carefully scripted into dichotomous scenes, like the character revealing "Wedding Duet" between Amy and Emma--are immensely entertaining. And though the lines are pitched for comedy ("Babies are on the proverbial table!") and cultural charm ("Not the same diff.... Financially, it's a totally different 'diff.'"), they still manage to wend their way through complex emotional thoughts, such as the place for secrets in a relationship, or the adulterous "emotional affair."
However, such airy writing isn't good at being direct or forceful. When Amy discovers her stepmother-in-law's diary, and its conclusion that Isaac and Emma are in love, the script falls back into artificiality. It's an outlandish "out" for Amy, and her clashes with Isaac and Amy only lead to evasive double-talk and repetitive denials. The show only recovers once Amy's loosened up with a bottle of wine: her casual conversation with Josh is not only more revealing than anything else in the play, but also honestly funny: "If you get on a bus and like, you think it's headed for New York City but then you realize the bus is actually going upstate to like, Albany, you know, you wouldn't stay on the bus. . . . You commit, and Man, you try, you know, you stay faithful to it and all -- but if it starts going to Albany -- you can't go to Albany, it's fucking awful there."
A Perfect Couple succeeds at turning our happy ideals on their heads, and Berman's earthbound characters have never seemed more engaging. As "everybody" says, after writing similar characters for ten years, you either learn to use that comedy or you stop writing. Mrs. Berman (who also put on Hunting and Gathering at Primary Stages this year) hasn't stopped writing.
Saturday, June 21, 2008