Romantic comedies, so often a staple of commercial theater in the past, have largely been pushed to the sidelines. When was the last time a Barefoot in the Park or a Same Time, Next Year dominated a season? One has to go back a full decade to Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife just to find an original romantic comedy that was even nominated for a Best Play Tony Award. To matter, shows now need to possess a stylistic edge or bear witness to current issues; the rest, it seems, are little more than trifles compared to the weightier material around them. So it’s a thrill to see a show like Matt Morillo’s The Inventor, The Escort, The Photographer, Her Boyfriend and His Girlfriend, now playing at Theater for the New City. Morillo’s recent string of honest relationship plays (including All Aboard the Marriage Hearse and Angry Young Women in Low Rise Jeans with High Class Issues) have made him a recent star of the venue, but his current work shows just how sturdy the subgenre can be.
Inventor is a traditional work; it honors the rhythm and roots of romantic comedies past. Its plot recalls Neil Simon’s early classic Plaza Suite, interweaving two separate tales taking place in the same location. In this case, it’s a Manhattan walk-up on the night of a punishing blizzard building (much credit goes to savvy set designer Mark Marcante).
The play follows five characters (conveniently delineated by the play’s lengthy title). The first act takes place in the apartment of Jeffrey (David R. Doumeng), a loner who’s made a mint inventing adult products. Adam has called for the services of Julia (Jessica Durdock) to act out a fantasy of his. Both are saddled with insecurities and disappointment, and break through the walls they have put up to get to really know each other and form a connection.
And while this could have been nothing more than the cliché-riddled stuff of stale sitcoms, Morillo (who directs his own play) makes Inventor utterly contemporary. The dialogue never seems stilted or false. Jeffrey and Julia talk like any couple today would talk, in totally polished fashion. This act is perfectly paced, with snappy dialogue on Morillo’s part and impeccable timing on the part of Doumeng and Durdock (the latter does a particularly effective job of shading in subtext to her character).
The second act of Inventor occurs upstairs, in the apartment of Karen (Emily Campion – the photographer) and her estranged boyfriend John (Tom Pilutik). Karen has given John a chance to redeem himself – he can have one affair to get it out of his system. John has very generously obliged, helping himself to Molly (Maria Rowene), a dancer who happens to have a longstanding connection to Karen and John.
This tale actually stems from an earlier work of Morillo’s (co-written with Maria Micheles), called Stay Over, and it stands as proof that a playwright’s work is never done. I reviewed Stay in its initial run two years ago and was not very impressed with it. At less than an hour it was overstuffed and puerile, and hardly stood on its own. It’s still not quite perfect; the situation starts feeling circular and it could be whittled down (at more than two-and-a-half hours, the play’s running time feels a bit bloated). However, the three actors are sharp, particularly Pilutik in a committed performance that’s unafraid to embrace John’s sleazy ways.
And when paired with the first act, the two tales work marvelously in tandem with one another. Expanding it has made the work better and lent thematic grandeur to Morillo’s subject, which is the way men and women relate to one another. The two acts stand as a perfect contrast to one another. Jeffrey and Julia hide behind fake guises and even fake names, and yet there’s a kernel of honesty and affection to everything they say to one another. The triangle of John, Karen and Molly, however, is quite casually blunt, and yet the things they say to each other carry no real currency. Words are just words to them, used to get themselves out of a situation, whereas with Jeffrey and Julia, it deepens the moment.
It’s quite fitting that in giving CPR to a past work of his, Morillo has gotten to the heart of the matter. Long live the romantic comedy.