Couples in Crisis

I'd Leave You...But We Have Reservations is a collection of four new one-act plays. The theme (sort of) is couples in crisis in restaurants (mostly). The setting is New York, and all the characters are very New York in that annoying highbrow way that exists only in theater. Produced by Living Image Arts and now premiering at the Linhart Theater at 440 Studios, this cobbled-together and tedious mishmash features some funny performances but little else. The first piece is Robert Askins's Past the Teeth, a pointless and tiresome Woody Allen reject about a couple celebrating their anniversary. The wife, played by Erin Kukla, is a whiny nag. The husband, played by Joseph Tomasini, is an annoying neurotic. Together, they are thoroughly unlikable. A restaurant critic on assignment, he takes notes about the restaurant as his wife prattles on about feeling neglected. She talks about their lackluster sex life—he feigns ignorance. There are lots of food-as-sex metaphors that have either been heard before or just aren't funny. The performers are not helped by Marco Jo Clate's uninspired direction, which runs the gamut from sitting with lots of arm movements to walking around aimlessly with lots of arm movements.

Jo Clate also directs the second piece, Jacqueline Christy's Lunch, an at times charming play about two old friends who meet for lunch to catch up. Maryanne, played by the woefully miscast Mia Alden, is a classic screw-up. Well into her 30's, she lives each day as if she were at a never-ending frat party. She gets drunk every night, has reckless sexual encounters with strangers and co-workers, pops pills, and is generally a frightful mess. Her friend Lucy, played by the talented Shelley McPherson in the evening's best performance, has it all, including a handsome husband and a house in Westchester.

As Maryanne unravels with each passing minute, Lucy listens attentively while offering advice, and ultimately takes pity on her. When Maryanne turns the tables on Lucy, the play devolves into a Lifetime TV movie about lesbians and eating disorders. Alden stumbles her way through the part and pauses at the oddest moments. But McPherson skillfully makes her presence known with a fully developed, three-dimensional performance that manages to make even the lesbian subplot touching. She deserves better material.

The longest and most hollow piece is Stephanie Rabinowitz's Nice Is for Dogs. Littered with literary references for the well educated, it wants to be an existential post-postmodern play so clever in its execution that the audience marvels at its construction. It isn't.

Sylvie, played by Rose Courtney, has dinner with her ex-lover Nate (Peter Marsh). She is a mess and unlovable, while he is in a new relationship and seemingly happy. They reminisce about their affair, and she tries to win him back. When he balks, she shoots him.

Dante, played by Greg Oliver Bodine, inexplicably shows up to taunt Sylvie in some sort of hell on earth metaphor. It is all very unclear. Sylvie then remembers another lover, also played by Marsh. He upsets her, and she kills him. Dante taunts some more. Perhaps she is in hell reliving a series of bad relationships? A third lover, Marsh again, lasts 30 seconds before being dispatched. Sylvie seeks solace in Dante, who turns out to be just like all the others. Director Christopher Schraufnagel tries to make it work, but he is outmatched by Rabinowitz's messy script. Schraufnagel does elicit a great performance from Rose Courtney, who embraces Sylvie's obnoxious personality and runs with it.

The evening's final play, Maria Gabriele's Club Justice, inexplicably abandons the "restaurant/couples-in-crisis" theme and is a forced and uneven attempt at social commentary. The title refers to a TV show hosted by a sadistic nutcase named Humphrey Balduc, played by Kyle Masteller. The show allows people who have been wronged to take revenge on their assailants.

Alexandra Lincoln plays Ziggy Haltegger, an uptight fussbudget who has been wronged. Ziggy comes on Club Justice to unleash her raging brutality on the foul-mouthed Lila, played with malicious delight by Heather Collis. When Ziggy's revenge goes awry, Humphrey turns on her, making Ziggy the TV show's target. It is a clever idea, but with Gabriele's unfocused direction and meandering script, the execution falters. Collis, however, does deliver a truly funny performance.

The problem with I'd Leave You...But We Have Reservations is that the four shows flounder with their lack of focus. Each play is a generic relationship piece populated by unlikable characters. Moreover, the production offers no connection to its audience, and its condescending attempts at depicting highbrow, cosmopolitan living ring untrue.

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