Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2008
Same Time, Next Year is the first of the four shows the Theater Barn will present during their 25th anniversary season that were selected based on audience surveys. Same Time... is a popular show all over the world, but I would bet that many of the Theater Barn patrons who selected it as one of their favorites were basing their choice on memories of the delightful 2003 mounting at the Barn, starring Virginia Drda and Stephen Bolte and directed by the current artistic director, Michael Marotta.
This production, starring Kathleen Carey and Brian Allard and directed by Phil Rice is a pale imitation. Even with sets by Abe Phelps and lighting by Allen Phelps, who fulfilled the same functions in 2003, this production looks shabbier and less loved.
A solid hit on Broadway in 1975, Same Time, Next Year remains one of the most performed plays in the world. It is a simple plot – George (Allard) and Doris (Carey), happily married (but not to each other), meet at a country inn in northern California and fall in to bed together one February night in 1951. At that point they are in their mid-20’s. They decide to make the tryst an annual event (both have solid excuses to travel to the region repeatedly) and over the course of six scenes we follow their relationship in five year intervals over the next quarter of a century.
Playwright Bernard Slade uses his characters and their encounters to reflect the life and times of America in 1951, 1956, 1961, 1965, 1970, and 1975. The music and other sound bites played during scene changes help the audience make the mental leaps through time, and Michelle Blanchard’s costumes and Robert Dalton’s wigs remind us of the changing fashions through those years.
George and Doris are very nice people, and while what they are doing may be immoral, but it is not illegal. They have no interest in hurting their spouses or children, in fact they begin each rendez-vous by telling each other one good and one bad story about their spouses, who are named Helen and Harry, by the way, and they become important, though unseen characters in the play because they are so very important to George and Doris. When, in the last scene, George tells Doris of Helen’s death, she remarks that, while she never met Helen, she feels as if she has lost a close friend, and we feel the same.
It is lucky that Slade has created such likeable characters – their comfortable middle-class lives are remarkably average and easy to relate to – because Allard and Carey don’t do much to help us cotton up to them. They are both poor comedians, and while this isn’t a laugh-a-minute farce by any means, it is a funny show. Without the comedy it falls rather flat. A flat soufflé still tastes good, but its, well, limp. So is this production.
This is the fourth time I have seen Allard on stage and I have come to unfortunate conclusion that he’s not a very good actor. Here his attempts at physical comedy are atrocious, and he is unable move George realistically through the changes of outlook and temperament that 25 years of living craft upon his soul. In fact when I returned from intermission and the curtain went up on the fourth scene – one which finds George at a particularly painful point in his life – Allard seemed to be playing a different character altogether, not the same man under different circumstances.
Carey is a very gifted dramatic actress. I have been profoundly moved by her performances in the title role of Peter Pan at Hubbard Hall and in Boy Gets Girl last season at the Barn. But I have never liked her in a comedy. She has an intensity and solemnity that is all wrong for this role, and, oddly, her tiny frame and sharp features also work against her here. Doris is a more expansive woman – cuddlier, if you will.
And, although Drda managed it quite nicely in 2003, Carey is unable to pull of the alarming series of wigs Doris must wear. In the first scene you see her natural, and very beautiful, red hair. After that it is just Kathleen Carey in a wig. She is just not a wig-wearing woman, and there isn’t time in the quick scene changes to apply make-up that might soften the effect of different hair colors on her natural skin tone.
In the dramatic moments, Carey is truly compelling, while Allard stands helplessly by.
I will now complain about childbirth scenes in general and the one in this production of this play in particular. There is no modest and realistic way to stage a childbirth scene. Best idea: Don’t write one in the first place, especially if you’re a man. If you are a man who feels compelled to write one, run it by some women who have actually given birth. Your mother would be a good place to start and she will probably have the good sense to tell you to cut the damned scene altogether. However, if you must have an on stage labor/birth scene, there are some things that can be done to at least elevate it from ludicrous to hilarious.
1) You cannot give birth with your legs together. Put the actress in a costume that allows her to spread her legs. A fairly long, full skirt is your best bet. Or throw the bedclothes over her.
2) Do not dress her in, or at least allow her to remove obvious impediments to a child actually proceeding from her body. Hint: No one gives birth wearing pantyhose.
3) If she has a line claiming her water has broken, her clothing should be visibly wet. I don’t know how many ounces of amniotic fluid there actually are, but when your water breaks it feels like you have drained a good-sized bathtub.
4) If the other character is going to be timing how far apart her contractions are, you need to allow her to fake more than one contraction. Particularly if she is going to then claim that she feels the baby descending and that the birth is imminent.
Yes, childbirth can be howlingly funny, the way most monumental moments in life have the capacity to be, and having George help deliver Doris’ fourth child is a good way for the characters to bond. The final moments of the third scene should be tender, not a relief from an embarrassingly implausible load of silliness.
Abe Phelps is usually the master of faux finishes. In my 2003 review of Same Time... I waxed rhapsodic about his wood paneling effect on the walls and said that I would check in to that inn in a heartbeat. This time I just wondered why “Old Chalmers” (the inn’s unseen proprietor) never redecorated in 25 years.
The material is strong enough to give this production some sweet and moving moments despite Allard’s weak acting, but there are more laughs to be had than are generated here. Last time I wrote that you would leave the Theater Barn feeling like you had just spent the evening with old friends. This time you barely leave with the satisfaction of having seen a good show.
Same Time, Next Year runs through July 6 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008