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A CurtainUp Review
With and Without
By Elyse Sommer
The 78th Street Theatre Lab right in the heart of the bustling upper west side has two tiny walk-up venues that anyone who enjoys intelligent and stimulating theater should put on their check-it-out-list. No, let me amend that. Put it on your do-it-now list so that your climb up the stairs will lead you to With and Without by Jeffrey Sweet before its 3/21 closing date. What you'll experience is a witty and solidly characterized drama about marriage and friendship, with a first rate cast of four skillfully steered through four well-paced intermission less scenes by Michael Montel. What's more, contrary to the usually bare-bones and often makeshift settings found in workshop spaces, the production is well served by a handsome set by Campbell Baird (who is also the costume designer).
Back in the early days of television With and Without would have made a splendid play of the week. This is not intended to categorize this as Seinfeldian or trivial, but a nostalgic thought about what might have been had the medium continued to encourage plays on a caliber of early television dramatists like Reginald Rose and Paddy Chayevsky. (Ed. aside: Marty , originally a television play and later a movie, is slated for yet another life next fall as a musical with Jason Alexander). Those television dramas nurtured an appreciation of plays of high quality and entertainment value, no matter what the medium.
Summed up in terms of its basic premise, With and Without, falls under the aegis of country house comedy. In this case the country house is a cottage rented in a lake side community not far from "the city" (by all indications, New York). The renters are two couples sharing the house for a relaxing week's vacation. Half of couple number two turns out to be a no-show which immediately changes the relationship arithmetic and sends the emotional barometer zooming out of the cool and relaxing zone.
Instead of 1+1= 2 x 2 equals 2+2= 4 as in a happy foursome, we have Shelly and Mark (Mia Dillon and Reed Birney), the 1+1=2 couple, tempted to head back to the city "in time to catch Charley Rose" instead of having to deal with the misery of Jill (Kit Flanagan) the half of the other couple. Add to this equation the fact that Jill and Mark were college lovers, and that Shelly was the matchmaker who brought Jill and the now-missing Russ together, and you can see where the playwright is headed.
Well, not really. You see, Mr. Sweet is a strong enough craftsman to delve beyond the obvious of both plot and characters so that we really get to know each of these people and come away with a better understanding of the compromises they -- and any of us -- are called upon to make to keep even the strongest relationships from unraveling around the edges. These compromises are inherent in the familiar saying alluded to in the title: Men/women-- you can't live with them and you can't live without them! Best of all, these characters while not extraordinary are nevertheless extraordinarily articulate. Their laugh lines are blended with a good deal of substantive discussion that puts their personal problems into a larger context -- for example, the expressed general yearning for times when "Jane Russell's cleavage was shocking" also informs Shelly's last scene with Jill and Mark.
As stated, this is a four member cast which brings us to Glen, a local man whose personal problems dovetail perfectly with Jill's. He's played with great charm and honesty by Erol K. C. Landis and the scene in which he and Jill exchange their emotional war stories, especially its interrupted high point, is one of the most touching and amusing of the evening. Generally speaking, all the characters are likeable. If Mr. Birney's Mark come off somewhat less sympathetically than the women, not quite the sensitive man his wife teasingly tells him he is, chalk it up to Mr. Sweet's genuinely non-sexist sensitivity.
At a movie-priced $12 ticket price (with TDF vouchers accepted), I can heartily recommend this as an enjoyable and affordable evening of theater.