Winter of 69

Breakups are a serious state of affairs, and usually both parties bear some responsibility for the end of the relationship. The couple that reaches a tipping point in <I<Stay Over, directed by Matt Morillo at the Theater for the New City, can blame their problems on a single source: a middling script that has no identity of its own. Though they’ve been together in the neighborhood of a decade, Mark (Tom Pilutik) and Michelle (Lori Faiella) can’t seem to move forward in their relationship, so the two have gone on a break for several months. During this time, Michelle has allowed Mark one opportunity to stray with one girl. Michelle returns to Mark’s apartment, #69, on a severe wintry night to reconcile.

First, though, she wants to hear the details of his dalliance, punishing him for something she had given him permission to do. It’s not much later that we learn Michelle, too, has strayed in her time apart from Mark, and the fact that he doesn’t put her through a similar line of questioning makes Michelle not only a hypocrite but also just plain cruel.

I have a feeling that audience sympathy in Stay Over will fall along gender lines. One reason for this is that both a male and a female pitched in on the writing. Morillo (of last year’s relationship comedy All Aboard the Marriage Hearse) and Maria Micheles adapted Micheles’ own Sleepover, a more dramatic version of a New York love triangle, and yet Stay Over still feels as though it is in draft form. It is hard to root for any single character, almost as though the writers were friends of the couple, too afraid to commit to taking a side.

Early on, Michelle comes off as the affronted party, having been betrayed after what may have just been a test of Mark, and Faiella goes a long way toward making the audience share her anguish, especially as the character appears more vindictive than wronged. Pilutik’s performance, meanwhile, is both age- and character-appropriate. He makes Mark, an actor, seem rational, moderately narcissistic, and possessive of a healthy sexual appetite, rather than merely a hedonistic cad. This makes it harder to hate him, and easier to care about the two of them.

Perhaps these hard-working actors would be helped if Micheles and Morillo gave at least a little background about the characters’ pasts. The script leaves many questions unanswered (what finally pushed Michelle to let Mark cheat? What had kept them together for all the years prior to that?), but watching the two actors at work, I found myself investing in what these two had and hoping to find out more about what made them work as a couple and what complicated the matter.

At least for a while. Then Lilly (JessAnn Smith) enters the play as the other woman, and Stay Over began taking crazy turns, some of which I even mean literally. Lilly, it turns out, not only had an affair with Mark, but also has a surprising connection to Michelle. The dynamics of the triangle that ensues is funny and unpredictable only to those who have never seen an episode of Three’s Company. Each character tries to outsmart the others as though this were some twisted episode of Survivor in which the winner gets to be in a relationship, but Lilly, Mark and Michelle increasingly appear to care only about themselves, making the audience care less and less about who might end up with whom.

Part of the reason for this is because Lilly doesn’t quite fit in. Faiella and Pilutik look and act like people in their early thirties, suggesting a believable balance of experience and confusion when it comes to relationships. Lilly, on the other hand, is supposed to be in her early twenties, but Smith’s vocal intonations suggest someone even younger, weakening this pivotal triangle. It is bad enough that she doesn’t seem to post a viable threat to Michelle, but she actually comes off as jailbait for Mark. A dance Lilly performs late in Stay Over (choreographed by the actress herself) comes off more clumsy than seductive.

Morillo’s staging also leaves something to be desired. The downstairs theater at TNC is a small space, but I spent roughly two-thirds of the show contorting myself in an attempt to see the action onstage around the people seated in the rows in front of me. Perhaps Morillo could have blocked more of the action upstage to allow his audience to see more given the confines of the venue.

As hard as Faiella and Pilutik may try, without further repairs, Stay Over is currently one affair not worth remembering.

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