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Beloved Infidelity

Forget what you’ve been taught about the bedroom providing the decisive battlefield in the war between the sexes — when it comes to the Armageddon of gender conflict, restaurants and bars are the classic theaters of operation. Love may be forged between the sheets and pillow talk may sink ships, but where did the couples begin their journey to the boudoir, where did their hands first — or last — entwine? Jon Tuttle’s play Drift, at Theater of NOTE, knows the answer and uses public spaces to explore private lives. It unfolds on designer Ed Burgess’ trifurcated stage — one area holds a middle-aged married couple engaged in brittle restaurant conversation, while center stage is dominated by three guys in a bar chewing the fat about women and the impossibility of relationships. (A third level does multiple-location duty.)

“Nature abhors a wedding,” exhales Lee (Howard S. Miller), a silver-haired pussy sage who’s pontificating to bartender Grady (Monroe Makowsky) and a beer-drinking jock named Joel (Phinneas Kiyomura). The younger men have been watching a baseball game when this old iceman cometh to proclaim the impossibility of lasting love, even as a sultry woman, Louise (Millie Chow), enters to flirt with Grady.

Meanwhile, at the restaurant, Barbara (Lauren Letherer) starts knocking back cognacs as soon as she sits down, to the chagrin of Arthur (David Bickford), her staid, thrifty husband. Like Arthur, we become uneasy with Barbara’s drinking and abrupt profanity, sensing that a dorsal fin has just broken the placid surface of their marriage.

With Act 2, things fall into place and apart: Lee is in reality a private investigator specializing in tracking philandering spouses, who in this case happen to be Grady, Louise and Arthur. Joel doesn’t come away from his encounter with Lee unscathed either, and begins questioning his own unraveling marriage to a waitress (Kelsey Wedeen).

Size may not be everything onstage, but proportion is, and Tuttle devotes far too much time to Act 1’s barroom scene, whose importance is emphasized by director Phil Ward with its pre-eminent stage geography. Sure, lots of jokes get told here, but after a while Lee’s animal-kingdom similes about sexual warfare start to sound like copy written for cocktail napkins. Besides crowding out the more textured moments that involve the desperate Barbara and the aloof Arthur, they set a rim-shot tone that Ward only encourages at the expense of the show. (Things aren’t helped by an intrusive musical score featuring songs by Matthew Lee.) There is one scene in which Barbara drunkenly unburdens herself to Grady in his bar, a moment that perhaps goes on too long but nevertheless is a touching cri de coeur that Letherer uses to command the stage. When she is finished, she looks up at the ballgame on TV and says, “I don’t know how you can stand to watch this.” This forlorn line broke up the audience in guffaws the night I attended. I can’t believe this was Tuttle’s intention, and if it was, it’s a shame.

Miller, who gets to deliver all those snappy one-liners (“Putting a ring on a woman’s finger is like pulling the ripcord on an inflatable raft”) as the hard-boiled loner, Lee, is given more dimension to play in Act 2, and makes the most of it when he is cornered by Louise, whose life has been shattered by his snooping. The show, however, belongs to Letherer, even though she is playing conspicuously under her character’s age. There is an aching vulnerability to her performance that never allows Barbara to become annoying or pathetic, and she closes the play on a painfully fragile note.

 

Like Barbara, Glenda Mortimer, the heroine in Gary Socol’s play Bicoastal Woman, is also a 50-ish woman stung by infidelity, but she is additionally burdened by a long-standing struggle with depression. Still, she lives in a swank Upper West Side apartment, so there’s a silver lining to her bipolar cloud. Glenda, played by Susan Clark in this Pasadena Playhouse production, is a familiar type to theatergoers: Besides keeping this cushy apartment (comfortably rendered by designer Gary Wissmann), she is employed as an “Editor” — one of the half-dozen or so jobs that lead characters in New York–set plays always seem to hold. (The others include Writer, Actor, Publisher and Painter.)

She has a best friend, the not-so-ironically named Joy (Chloé Webb), whom Glenda met several years earlier — between electroshock jolts at a psychiatric ward. Although the promiscuous and younger Joy doesn’t seem to have as much upstairs as her friend, Glenda apparently takes her on trips around the world, and they don’t simply finish each other’s sentences, they seem to start them as well. Together they inhabit an Allergist’s Wife kind of New York as they fill time talking about psychiatrists, shopping, eating and doormen — especially the doorman who’s smitten by the newly available Glenda. Paul (William Katt) is quickly rebuffed by her, however, and being the gentlemanly Midwestern scholar that he is, mostly recedes into the woodwork until Act 2.

As if, we soon find ourselves thinking. But then, many things don’t make sense here, either because of Socol’s writing or Jenny Sullivan’s artless direction. Why would Paul suddenly fall for an older woman the moment he learns she’s on the market? Why does he plant a manuscript in her apartment, then later remove it without ever divulging its significance? Why does Glenda keep appearing in the same purple slacks in one scene after another?

Too, there’s a numbing regularity to the scenes, which usually begin with opera or classical music oozing out of Glenda’s stereo, quickly followed by Joy’s appearance. The actors are stuck in single-note performances, with only Webb even coming close to being engaging. Her problem is that Joy doesn’t make sense, either as Glenda’s friend or even as a comic foil. If, as a contemporary professional woman, Glenda seems a little pat, Joy appears to have been reincarnated in toto from another era in theater, when sassy, nail-filing blonds came with names like Trixie or Roxy. When Joy says a male friend is taking her to a French movie, we sense we’re supposed to find the notion of watching a foreign film unspeakably effete; likewise, when she mentions that this same fellow plans to take her to an exhibition of “avant-garde sculpture,” part of us struggles to imagine what the term could possibly mean in the 21st century, but another part suspects everyone’s supposed to roar with laughter at the very idea of abstract representation — you know, misshapen nudes with holes in their tummies.

While the Pasadena Playhouse is to be applauded for developing and premiering new work (something it hasn’t often done), Socol’s dramedy remains a little play tweezered onto a big stage, where its flaws are generously amplified by the space and Sullivan’s direction. Throughout Bicoastal Woman’s two hours, you never shake the feeling that there’s something terribly patched-together — and disingenuous — about a work whose central character laments the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in one breath, and in the next claims to have just spent $4 million on unseen property in Montana. The immediate problem is that Socol can’t make up his mind as to whether he wants to write sitcom puffery or a serious examination of mental decay; the larger question is whether he is capable of writing either.

DRIFT | By JON TUTTLE | Presented by THEATER OF NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood | Through June 14

BICOASTAL WOMAN | By GARY SOCOL | Presented by PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave. | Through June 1