MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV) – The title “Romantic Comedy” sounds like something simple.
Well, the title is the simplest thing about the Bernard Slade play presented by Attic Chamber Theatre.
Director Berray Billington astutely guides his cast in a polished performance of a story laced with nuances of temptations, comical and emotional.
The setup is a successful playwright has split from his writing partner, and a perfect teammate has arrived on his doorstep. Swiftly, this becomes an adult comedy.
The playwright, Jason Carmichael, is standing in his living room in a robe with two plans in mind: A massage by a masseuse followed by dressing for a marriage – his.
When Jason steps out of the room for a moment, Phoebe walks into his home – just arrives in a bit of artistic license by Bernard Slade – answers the telephone and hears that the masseuse is ill and can’t make it. Jason returns, takes Phoebe for the substitute masseuse and invites a massage.
In a web of verbal and sight gags – Phoebe’s expressions – the two comically clear up clouds: Phoebe, a fledging playwright, has arrived a week early to discuss her new play with Jason, who she has admired for years and is quite ga-ga about his writing skills. Jason immediately takes to Phoebe’s mind and offers a partnership. But there’s also something about Phoebe beneath her dumpy, nerdy exterior.
Thus, the complications of “Romantic Comedy,” carried out in faux reality of live performance in a performance space with the audience watching in on the living room from three sides.
Setting up seven scenes are popular songs that hint of what is to follow. The first are the Tony Bennett version of “My Romance” (quite lovely), The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You” and Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.” Along the way Friday night, some folks in the audience sang along.
Scene changes in this production are entertaining. One of the crew members adds a bit of gliding ballet artistry when changing set pieces. Only with live theater do you get such a bonus.
The performances are splendid and easy to admire.
Brian Zimmerman (Jason) and Lisa Witmer (Phoebe) are in a zone as the writing partners from whom creativity springs. Bernard Slade’s characters provide a glimpse of what the theater scene may be like for writers – the tussling of minds, the successes or failures, the complications of living life.
Jason’s major complication is he has an elegant wife, Allison (Marisa Darcourt), in this tightrope situation: Jason and Phoebe work from home – Allison and Jason’s – and Alison is witness to the “something about Phoebe.”
A continual visitor is Jason’s agent, Blanche (Lydia Singleton). Blanche is a whip-tongued devil’s advocate about the goings-on. Blanche has a pithy exit line that’s right on: “Oh, Jason, try to be a better person.”
Eventually, Phoebe gets a life of her own. A newspaper reporter, Leo (Andrew Ring), is smitten by Phoebe, adding layers and layers to complications. Leo is full of give and take.
In one scene – an immediate sight gag – Jennifer Konitzer portrays a testy prima donna actress who has “negotiated” a resolution of a dispute with Jason.
Throughout, Brian Zimmerman and Lisa Witmer are a couple of acting tigers. Director Berray Billington has them in continual motion in a constant simmer of opposing/attracted characters. In the opening sequences especially, Lisa Witmer’s expressions are like a primer in how to portray comedic reaction. Throughout, Brian Zimmerman portrays a guy who is a piece of work with a laundry list of faults, starting with vainglory.
This production of “Romantic Comedy” is another example of excellent work that can be found in our region’s local theaters. Really fine.
Running time: 2½ hours
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Oct. 29; 2 p.m. Oct. 30; 7 p.m. Nov. 1, 2, 3, 4
Creative: Playwright – Bernard Slade; director – Berray Billington; stage manager – Benjamin C Jordan; scenic design – Scott Wirtz Olsen; lighting design, technical director – James Frelich; sound engineer – Aubrey Parrish; production coordinator, props – Scott Crane
Cast (in order of appearance)
Jason Carmichael – Brian Zimmerman
Blanche Dailey – Lydia Singleton
Phoebe Craddock – Lisa Witmer
Allison St. James – Marisa Darcourt
Leo Janowitz – Andrew Ring
Kate Mallory – Jennifer Konitzer
NEXT: “The Revolutionists” by Lauren Gunderson, Feb. 9-12, 15-19.
THE VENUE: Lucia Baehman Theatre is located at 1478 Midway Road in the Communication Arts Center of University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fox Cities Campus. It is a 125-seat, somewhat rectangular space. Lined by black stage curtains on each wall, the space serves as a black-box theater. There are no adornments, and the stage and space are adaptable to whatever a production needs for campus and community productions. The adjacent lobby is spacious and includes a ticket office, snack service area, restrooms and spaces for art and photo displays. The center opened in 2009.
THE PEOPLE: Lucia Baehman and her husband, Stan, are longtime supporters of theater in the Fox River Valley.