Ken Levine, who wrote the new play A or B?, has spent decades in television, writing, producing and consulting, mostly on sitcoms. His credits include the iconic M*A*S*H, where he was head writer. M*A*S*H was smart, entertaining and told Americans a thing or two about who we are.
By contrast, A or B?, a two-hander that pivots on the relationship between an attractive professional woman and her would-be boss, is as glib and vacuous as its title suggests. It’s also vexingly reactionary in its portrayal of women, with Abby (Jules Willcox), its female character, depicted as mercurial and manipulative, if somehow adorable.
The plot calls to mind the 1998 movie Sliding Doors, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow and which simultaneously recounted two possible scenarios in a woman’s life. Here a similar device is employed. The play starts out in a bar where Abby is interviewing for a job as marketing director for a media research firm. Ben (Jason Dechert), her prospective boss and one of the firm’s owners, is a dishy guy, and their physical attraction is mutual. Almost immediately the question becomes whether it would be better to forget about the job and hop into bed, or subliminate their lustful impulses and utilize that energy in the workplace.
How the scenario plays out can be gauged by whether Abby is wearing a red dress, as she does in the first scene, or a blue one, as in the second. In red Abby is wild and sexy, content to throw ambition to the wind. In blue her cooler self prevails and ambition takes precedence over passion. (Later Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting indicates these shifts by shading the set in predominantly red or blue.)
Either way, Abby comes across as an irksome and inconsistent character. She’s posited as a brilliant idea woman and a sophisticated player of life on the one hand; next thing you know, she’s collapsing into Ben’s arms and bawling her lungs out over her two-years-dead cat. It’s sitcom-like and silly, and I don’t mean that in a good way.
The other annoying thing is how this character is used to push (or pull) the story along. Stories demand obstacles, and Levine lays that task in Abby ‘s lap. Whatever resolution Ben suggests to their issues, she finds something to object to.
Of course, A or B? isn’t intentionally misogynistic or patronizing. It’s just clueless. The play is primarily intended as a satire of the sex and dating scene of young sophisticates, and of the world of advertising and TV. It’s tepid on both counts — nothing that hasn’t been seen or said countless times before. The one-liners are pretty wan.
I hesitate to say too much about the performances, given the material and Andrew Barnicle’s myopic direction. Relatively speaking, Dechert fares best. his Ben is more natural, and on some level connectable to reality, if only dimly. He seems skilled at comedy. Willcox has done far more impressive work on other stages.
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Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; through Nov. 16. (818) 955-8101, falcontheatre.com.
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