The voice of Marlo Thomas, so cavernously amplified it sounds as if it’s coming from a secret vault at an undisclosed location outside of Marlo Thomas, expertly sets up a joke: “If you had told Jane Austen that someday her epic masterpiece would be read by people on their telephone, she would’ve said, well — ”
“What’s a telephone?” cackles a woman behind me.
There are many things we might mean when we say a play resembles a sitcom, but one good field identification is an audience that can anticipate the punchlines and then deliver better ones than the playwright. (The script’s version is “She wouldn’t have said anything, there were no telephones.”) This keeps happening in Clever Little Lies, the cozy and irksome new comedy by Joe DiPietro now at the Westside Theatre. Thomas plays Alice, a housewife-turned-bookseller bitterly disappointed that her customers want Dickens coffee mugs instead of Dickens. Still, her interest in literature is no more substantial than theirs: It exists largely to check off a few socioeconomic boxes (smart, underemployed suburban lady) and to provide a few jokes that are topical only in the way an anesthetic is. (One involves a blockbuster sequel called Sixty Shades of Grey.) Any particular traits she or the other characters may have — her husband and son are both lawyers in the city, her daughter-in-law an editor on maternity leave — are mere set decoration, and as such no more convincing than the set itself, which looks as if it were assembled for a Crate & Barrel pictorial.
The play’s real interest isn’t in specifics anyway; rather, it aims to show, categorically, how falsehood and fidelity intertwine in marriage. Alice and her husband, Bill, have what appears to be a snug, rock-solid relationship based primarily on respect for inertia — not to mention Alice’s iron grip on all decision-making and her ability to suss out, like a police dog, any off-smells wafting around her. One of those off-smells, which is no spoiler because we learn about it in the first scene, is the affair that the couple’s married son, Billy, is having with his super-hot 23-year-old personal trainer. (Even the play recognizes this as a cliché.) After tennis at the club one day, Billy tells his nonplussed father that while his wife, Jane, is adjusting to new motherhood, and behaving as if she’s “Joan of Arc for giving me a blowjob,” he and the trainer are having constant “animal” sex. Dad’s promise to keep his son’s secret lasts about five minutes under Alice’s klieg-light scrutiny, and thus is hatched a plan to patch up the young’uns with a little motherly intervention and cheesecake. The plan, obviously, goes awry, and soon Alice herself is forced to invent a secret of her own as a kind of parable. Or is it an invention?
Not an ounce of this is believable, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be entertaining. (Was Chuckles the Clown’s funeral believable?) Indeed, a lot of the audience, including the Elaine May manqué behind me, spent most of the play’s 90 minutes anticipating and roaring. As I sat there stone-faced, I could only conclude that this was because they found tickly what felt to me like the onset of eczema. For all of us, I suppose, it had something to do with inexorability. DiPietro, the author of last season’s Renée Fleming bomb, Living on Love, as well as the books for several successful musicals (including the perennial I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change), knows how to structure a story like this, throwing out gobbets of new information at regular intervals and giving the actors playable dialogue in between. That dialogue is further subpunctuated by interrobangs of unsurprising verbal surprise. (“Don’t curse so much, okay?” begs Dad. “I didn’t raise you to fucking curse so much!”) Though the plot itself quickly stops making sense, the cast, under David Saint’s businesslike direction, proves expert at discerning the beat and syncopating it where possible. Thomas lands her creaky jokes with ease, and Greg Mullavey, as Bill, achieves the even more difficult task of creating laughs where none are provided, mostly with his fabulous deadpan. (From his time opposite Louise Lasser on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, he knows how to make silence pay.) The younger couple, as written, aren’t funny at all; Billy is basically an asshole and Jane a punching bag. But George Merrick and Kate Wetherhead do much to make them palatable, and Wetherhead, the delightful star and co-creator of the web series Submissions Only, actually gets past that before stalling out halfway to lovable.
In that sense, saying that Clever Little Lies is too sitcom-ish is unfair to some sitcoms, including Thomas’s own That Girl, which ran from 1966 to 1971; if Ann Marie had foreseen this play’s women (and men) as the inheritors of her feminism, she would have shot Donald Hollinger and moved to Minneapolis. When marriage is such an inevitable soul-suck, why do any of the characters stay married, and why is Clever Little Lies a comedy? Actually, the most compelling part of the play is the part that starts to slide down that muddy embankment, exploring the disillusion that ensues when your lover becomes your family and your family is too familiar. “In the long run,” Alice says, “people always stop showing you their shiny side,” and reveal their unpolished truths.
That might make a good play. Unfortunately, Clever Little Lies, mostly determined to stay shiny, isn’t it. (The lighting, like all the technical elements, is very unsubtle.) The chemistries and confrontations it alludes to are either described in retrospect or simply excised; the only thing it actually dramatizes is its own plot mechanism. Like those marital blow jobs, it’s pro forma, not passionate, offering at best the pleasure of familiarity. Perhaps in sitcom-ish plays like this, the “com” part of the word means “comfy.”
Clever Little Lies is at the Westside Theatre through January 3.