Sunday, May 30, 2010

That 70s Play: Same Time Next Year

 In some ways, Same Time Next Year is the quintessential 70s play. The 70s were when the 60s made it to suburbia, and to Middle America generally. Vietnam protest, the generation gap, sexual revolution, women’s liberation, encounter groups, Open Marriage and a skyrocketing divorce rate—all of it really happened in the decade that began with Kent State and ended with the Eagles doing disco.

 It’s unlikely that this play’s premise could have been accepted as fit for comedy before the 70s: a New Jersey accountant and an Italian Catholic housewife meet in northern California and have a passionate night together—and then they continue their affair for decades, but only for one weekend every year.

 But the 70s were more than ready. To suggest how avant garde this wasn’t, the play is by Bernard Slade, whose previous work included a Neil Simon knock-off and episodes of Bewitched. He went on to create The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family.

 But it was provocative enough, in a 70s way, for some observers to find it offensive, while others thought it was superficial. I suspect there are some in both camps today as well. Though the 1975 Broadway production was a long-running hit, probably more people saw the 1978 movie version starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda.

 But given its parentage, it may be surprising that Same Time Next Year works much better as a stage play than a movie. At least it did for me in 2010, in the current Ferndale Repertory Theatre production.

 The play follows an affair that begins in 1951, with the final scene in 1975. Admitting that ordinary people actually had extramarital affairs in the 50s was already a 70s innovation. Novelists could tell you in the privacy of your reading experience, but not plays, with all those people around you who know you’re watching it—and laughing. Now there’s a certain nostalgia to it all, though the slides projected during scene changes depicting events of those decades—including wars and assassinations as well as sex, drugs and rock & roll—also can evoke the pain of the period (even when some events seem shown slightly out of order.)

 Though Slade’s chronology also seems doubtful in places, he had the benefit of those years being recent, and he had the ear to suggest each period’s particular vocabulary. Technologies may be changing faster at the moment, but each year of the 60s and early 70s seemed almost like its own decade.

 Alexandra Gellner as Doris and Ilan Ben-Yehuda as George bring the likeable characters to life. They do the physical comedy well, but don’t overdo it. Especially at the beginning, this starts the audience laughing. But the play doesn’t dwell on the sex comedy aspect. It doesn’t become a farce.

 The emphasis is on the separate lives of Doris and George, and how their relationship supports each of them, and even each of their marriages. There’s a certain quality of a fable about it all, which comes across even as the actors create a convincing relationship on stage with believable charm. They both avoid the temptation of being too whiny. All of this encourages the confidence the audience needs to identify and to laugh.

 Director Marilyn McCormick (former exec director of Ferndale Rep) brings out the skilled structure and deft writing of Bernard Slade’s script, as well as adding some brilliant business. She also keeps the pace from flagging, and so each of the six individual scenes pays off as it should.

 There’s a certain formula to how each of the characters changes in opposite ways from the other, and in how they relate to external events, but the craftsmanship is solid, the actors are winning, and the resulting comedy carries it along.

 I happened to see this on Donor Appreciation Night, and some considerable portion of the audience appeared to recall the 60s and 70s. Their surprisingly randy laughter suggested, among other things, a certain authenticity in the script. They roared at the mention of Berkeley in 1965, and caught Slade’s pitch-perfect Encounter Group psychobabble of the 70s.

 But I suspect that there is enough universal human comedy (and drama) to involve and please those for whom the 70s are known mostly from a retro sitcom. There aren’t that many laugh-out-loud comedies, even in the summer theatre repertoire. This production provides one of them.

 Seth Stone designed the warmly California set, with an assist from Nick Trotter’s lighting design. Vikki Young assembled the slide shows, and designed costumes with director Marilyn McCormick. Same Time Next Year plays two more weekends at Ferndale Rep, ending on June 13.

Coming Up:  Dell'Arte School grad and now teacher Gale McNeeley returns to the Arcata Playhouse after 30 years (when it housed the Pacific Arts Center) to present his one-person play, archy and mehitabel, based on the Don Marquis characters, on Saturday June 12 at 8 p.m.

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