CONWAY — M&D Playhouse’s first show of 2019, “Lovers and Other Strangers,” a series of five unrelated comedic scenes about love and relationships written by Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor in 1968, is undeniably a product of its time and not necessarily in a good way.
This is a difficult production to review because it is well-directed and acted, but the script is dated in a manner that makes it hard for some of the dialogue to work for modern audiences. But, to their credit, the cast gives consistently funny and poignant performances that elevate the material.
Plays and films from past decades always reflect the time in which they were made, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are passe. Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” which was written around the same time as “Lovers and Strangers,” is still consistently funny more than 50 years later because it’s addressing universally relatable themes.
“Lovers and Other Strangers,” which opened Thursday at 1857 White Mountain Highway in North Conway and is playing Thursday through Sunday for the next two weeks, is also tapping into timeless concepts such as cold feet before a wedding, meddling parents and how to have a lasting relationship.
The problem is “Lovers and Other Strangers” is also commenting on the sexual revolution and women’s movement of the 1960s with an, at times, hostile and dismissive tone.
While it is an honest reflection of the mindset of the era, it is a struggle to yield laughs from some of these situations, most notably a scene between Ken Martin and Karen Gustafson as a married couple who have lost the spark.
Martin’s Johnny wishes his increasingly independent wife would simply realize the man is “the boss.” There’s a deeply uncomfortable moment in which Martin is literally twisting Gustafson’s arm until she concedes his authority. The scene does explore the idea of fragile masculinity in a way that begins to touch on something deeper, but then falls short.
Throughout the play, I reminded myself to accept it as a time capsule, but it is hard to find humor in a character casually declaring she was raped on her wedding night. It doesn’t help that this moment isn’t written in a meaningful enough way to attempt to play it for pathos.
There are pleasures to be found in the play though. In the first scene, the play’s best, a man (Eric Jordan) barrages in on his fiancee (Gabriel Roberts) in the middle of the night in hopes of finding her cheating, so he’d have a way out of the wedding.
What follows is a rambling monologue in which an increasingly desperate Jordan explains to Roberts all the reasons they can’t get married. Roberts doesn’t say a word as Jordan reaches Lou Costello levels of exasperation. Jordan’s frantic energy is hilarious, and he ends the scene with a wide-eyed stare that couldn’t be better.
The next scene establishes a theme of men trying to talk their way out of something, with Dan Tetreault playing a man who is explaining to his mistress (Melissa O’Neil) why he can’t leave his wife. The logical leaps Tetreault’s Hal makes are often very funny and O’Neil delivers a series of less-than-impressed facial expressions that are priceless.
In the third scene, Jason Stevens gets some laughs as a guy who brings a woman (Christine Thompson) back to his place. Thompson is a motormouth who is up on all the latest feminist and spiritual literature. Stevens isn’t as well-read and just tries to hang on long enough to bed her.
Stevens and Thompson return in the final scene in different roles as a couple getting a divorce much to the dismay of Stevens’ parents (Rich Russo and Mary Bastoni).
Russo and Bastoni are perfect as stereotypical overbearing Italians, who amusingly banter and proclaim they aren’t happy or in love, but rather content. Russo keeps asking for “the story” as Stevens sits there bewildered by the parental browbeating.
While this scene starts out with several big laughs and even offers some insights into marriage, it begins to belabor its point and becomes redundant when the genders pair off for one-on-one talks.
Again, I can’t stress enough that this is a well-mounted production. Director Dennis O’Neil has cultivated some great chemistry from his cast. The scenes are well-paced and performed.
Deb Jasien has designed a versatile apartment set that, with minimal changes, is able to serve each scene.
Everyone involved makes this work about as well as it could, it is just a shame the script hasn’t held up over the years. For every line that gets a laugh or rings true, there’s one that is painfully dated.
Still, the production’s highs do outweigh the lows and the cast and crew’s work is worth seeing.
For more information or tickets, call (603) 733-5275 or go to mdplayhouse.com.