REVIEW: “Clever Little Lies” at the Ghent Playhouse

by Gail M. Burns

Joe DiPietro has something to say about being married for the long haul – it’s a slog. This is neither news nor entertainment, it is simply a rather dreary fact of life. And it is a crummy basis for a comedy, which is what Clever Little Lies is supposed to be. And when you start with a crummy play no amount of money, talent, or hard work is going to make it right.

The 2015 New York production of this play starred Marlo Thomas, so it was billed as a nostalgic, 1960’s sit-com style comedy and compared to early Neil Simon. Nothing could be further from the reality. In fact, 1960’s sit-coms had more sympathetic and fully formed characters, and sit-com writers knew exactly how to structure a tight 25 minutes of laughs and pathos. Here DiPietro takes what should be a two-hour, two act drama, and squeezes it into 90 intermissionless minutes which does neither plot nor character development any favors.

All of this is in explanation of why Cathy Lee-Visscher’s production of Clever Little Lies at the Ghent Playhouse is so unsatisfying, despite some good performances and a handsome set.

Bill (Sky Vogel) and Alice (Meg Dooley) have been married for several decades and are the parents of 30-something Billy (Jay Reum). The men are successful lawyers in “the city.” Out in affluent suburbia Alice owns an independent bookstore which is the kind of job people do because they love it, but which seems to make Alice very cranky. Billy’s wife, Jane (Erin Harwood), is an editor of medical texts, but she is currently at home on maternity leave caring for their three-month old daughter, Emily (played by a bundle of pink blankets). Everyone goes to the gym and does Pilates and belongs to book groups. And everyone swears a LOT.

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Billy is having an affair. He is a thoroughly unlikeable character and there is nothing Reum or Lee-Visscher can do to make him anything other than what DiPietro has created. The fact that the other three characters have souls doesn’t help.

Obviously, Billy is engaged in lying to Jane, and in the first scene, where he and his father are dressing to leave the gym after a game of tennis, he tells Bill that everyone lies to their spouse and that it is “the easiest thing to do.” (There is also a lot of “locker room talk” in this scene, far more than I believe any WASP father and son would be comfortable having.)

Billy swears his father to secrecy, but, in true sit-com fashion, Alice uncovers the truth and determines to find a way to “help” the young couple when they come over for coffee and cheesecake that evening. Her “help” takes the form of what starts out as possibly another lie, but by the decidedly tragic final curtain there is little to indicate that she hasn’t been telling the truth.

People are lying to each other and hurting each other and we are supposed to be laughing. There are some punchy punch-lines that gave me a giggle, but ultimately I was uncomfortable laughing at other people’s pain.

Reum and Dooley, playing the liars, looked uncomfortable as well, while Vogel and Harwood were far more at ease in their sympathetic roles.

The second and fourth scenes take place in Bill and Alice’s living room, for which Lee-Visscher has designed a really handsome realistic set, which is on full display for the audience to admire as they enter the theatre. But the first scene takes place in the locker room and so as time comes for the play to begin stagehands come on and fold back the downstage wings of the living room set, revealing that those gorgeous cream-colored walls with wainscoting are nothing but canvas flats and that their exposed backs are painted matte black. A bank of lockers and appropriate lighting would have been more effective and less jarring.

The wings are folded back again for the third scene, which takes place in Billy and Jane’s car as they drive to his parents’. The “car” is created by the standard four chairs in two rows. Reum is remarkably bad at pantomiming driving, which is made more evident by Maxwell Lagonia’s carefully constructed realistic lighting and sound effects for the scene.

While Alice is the “star turn,” the center of this production is Vogel’s Bill who, with relatively few lines compared to his loquacious family, carries the weight of all the lies. The final stage picture of Vogel alone on stage is heartbreaking.

Also heartbreaking is Harwood’s trustingly naïve Jane, who DiPietro doesn’t even allow the dignity of finding out what a louse she’s married to. It is painfully obvious that a man wrote this play.

DiPietro writes repeatedly that we choose our happiness. There is nothing glamorous about a long-term monogamous relationship, but there are joys to be had amongst the day to day grind otherwise why would so many of us make it our chosen way of life?

Clever Little Lies by Joe DiPietro; Directed by Cathy Lee-Visscher; Assistant Director Matt Sikora. Cast: Sky Vogel as Bill; Jay Reum as Billy, Meg Dooley as Alice; Erin Harwood as Jane; Scene design: Cathy Lee-Visscher; Costume design: Joanne Maurer; Lighting & Sound design: Maxwell Lagonia; Running Time: 90 minutes; no intermission; The Ghent Playhouse, Ghent, NY; From 1/26/18; closing 2/4/18.

Tickets are $22 each, $17 for Members of the Playhouse and $10 for Students with ID.  Tickets may be reserved by calling 1-800-838-3006 or going to the website at www.ghentplayhouse.org.

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