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Counseling Between Courses 

by Michael Bowen


Saturday, 6:36 pm The antipasto was spread across the plate, half-eaten. The babysitter had stood us up (again), and so my night out -- going to see I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at CenterStage -- had morphed from me and my wife on a hot date to me as a solo guy thrust into the dinner theater experience. Loneliness, dating, marriage, parenting -- the worry that upon meeting my table mates, I would promptly splatter myself with tomato sauce -- I was feeling already the yuppie angst of the characters in Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro's musical: life imitating Spokane's theatrical art.


6:37 Tim Behrens, CenterStage's managing artistic director, plays maitre d' and ushers me to table No. 17, where Phyllis and Linda await, articulate and cultured women both. Still wrestling with coat and bag, I was explaining about the babysitter when the evening's first broadside came rumbling across my port bow: "So what makes you think that your opinion about theater matters?"


I'd been loving this evening, it was going to be perfect, now things had changed.


Evidently Behrens had foretold of my approach. The ladies passed me the mixed greens (crisp and nicely varied), handed over the basket of bread (undistinguished), made apologies for the jumbled-up pasta shells and veggies (quite good), eyed me over their wine glasses. I mumbled platitudes: only one man's opinion, just trying to start a conversation in print, been in a few shows, sure, really just a guy who loves theater. Don't do the resume. Smile, you're in Candid Questions.


6:41 Phyllis wonders how could I ever have worked at that place where I used to work. Linda helpfully inserts into the conversational flow some personal details about Phyllis. We lock gazes, take some jibes, make admissions, establish a pattern of repartee. Oy vay, the play should be so entertaining.


6:52 Nice to see a sold-out Saturday night crowd in an elegant space. Main course on its way. Made a detour to observe the jazz club, making plenty of noise upstairs. Waitstaff really hustling. People genuinely enjoying themselves. Wine consumption helps in that regard. Critics practice personal prohibition. Make note to halt such needless self-restraint. Wouldn't be professional. But the accounting firm that bought four tables up front -- all they're accounting for now is one bottle after another. Still, professional obligations. Still, the juice of bacchus beckons.


7:10 We sample three of the available four dinner selections. The Chianti-Braised Lamb Shank was remarkably tender and flavorful, accented with tomato -- clearly the standout choice. Unfortunately, the tuna steak, even when broiled with a puree of Italian country olives and a saffron-infused Aioli, remained bland and flavorless. As one might expect when Chef Kile Tansy is serving a full house of 240 theatergoers, the Pollo Vin Bianco had a slightly rubbery texture -- but the sauce, a saut & eacute; with fresh grapes, was outstanding. All three came with broccoli (not overdone, yet forgettable), white beans in a light tomato sauce (just dandy) and risotto (a great contrast in texture, and flavorful). Ever the mannerly bon vivant, I glanced over at my companions' plates and stole some more of the risotto.


7:56 Up onstage, Behrens starts to shill: second-biggest employer of performing artists in Spokane, flagship of the arts district, UpStage jazz and World Music Series, thanks for coming, really need your donations. Linda isn't sharing any more of the lamb.


8:03 Behrens continues to shill. Evidently, his mother has contributed a lot to the theater. She is introduced, applauded. This broccoli looks stringy.


8:05 House lights down. Piano, violin and guitar strike up an overture. Six people dressed in medieval monks' hoods lumber onto the stage. From the beginning, we're told in biblical tones, men and women have really had it in for each other. Suddenly they rip off the robes and transform themselves into people frantically primping before a date. Upbeat, mock-epic, energetic. A good start.


8:11 Next three numbers trade in stereotypes: "A Stud and a Babe." "Single Man Drought." "Why? 'Cause I'm a Guy." All men talk incessantly about themselves and one other topic, themselves. Of the half-dozen actors, Reed McColm's nerdy golfer has the comic deadpan down. He's an acting clinic; watch him closely.


8:16 A tap on my shoulder, a whisper in my ear: "Cloying and predictable." (Notetaking must have given me away.) Though we're out in the audience, it was a stage whisper, and they're making a big production of walking out early: the lesbian couple who'd been seated right behind us.


Well, it is an overtly heterosexual play, I'll grant them that. You see these straight people everywhere lately. What do they think they're doing, taking over the world?


DiPietro's book, it's true, doesn't acknowledge that there are plenty of people out there who don't necessarily see and-baby-makes-three as the ne plus ultra of earthly existence. But whatever your dating proclivities, surely the nervousness, the wondering, the qualms about commitment, the thud of perpetual monogamy hover over us all. (Honey, I didn't mean us.)


8:17 Phyllis, sotto voce: "It's a lot harder to create than it is to criticize." True, but with all these stereotypes... Still, I like the skit about harried Palm Pilot persons lacking the time for dating: Let's just skip over the first date, shall we? And the second, third and fourth...


8:21 Men refuse to cry at movies. But in "Tear Jerk," Tony Caprile avoids overacting when -- what is this, sweat in my eye? -- he discovers that his date just loves men who aren't afraid of their emotions.


8:29 John Hart and Tamara Schupman playing tennis on their fourth date. Why hasn't he made a pass at her yet? Hart wrings wonderful, bashful longing out of the line, "Just being respectful, I guess." Much comedy about making a nice lasagna for you tonight ensues, and can he bring some cond... er, wine? Schupman changes the tone with a lovely ballad, "I Will Be Loved Tonight," perfectly expressing the anxious joy of someone who knows what's coming right after the lasagna -- and I don't mean a second helping. She sells her character's happiness, and we feel it.


8:35 Another one of the scenes in this play that remind me of a one-idea skit on Saturday Night Live: a singles meeting in a penitentiary. But as the guy in the bright-orange jumpsuit, Hart makes one of those entrances that's hilarious even before the jokes begin.


8:43 More skits, first one spoofing our "right" to earth-shaking sexual satisfaction, with Caprile good as a smarmy huckster, then Schupman as the grateful recipient of a phone call. Men never call back, the bastards.


8:57 First act ends with a (not entirely blissful) wedding. Stephanie Brush plays the bride. The program states that "on October 2, 2004, she will have been single for 50 years." Smart girl. Given the show's light-hearted insistence that all men are oafish and all women clingy, we'll be better off avoiding commitment and scarfing up the dessert at intermission.


9:07 Tansy has provided three mini-desserts, actually. The raspberry-cherry torte is full of rich chocolate, the best of the lot. The apple-peach cobbler tasted typical. I didn't like the pina colada cake, but then, unlike the guy in the song, I don't like pina coladas.


9:15 Or getting caught in a rain of clich & eacute;s. Fortunately, the second half opens with Janean Jorgensen in a nice solo turn about perpetual bridesmaids: the marriages never last, but still they're stuck forever with ugly dresses in their closets.


9:24 Yuppie parents are forever possessive of their cutesy-wutesy widdle babies. I fink I'm gonna fwow up.


9:31 Hart and Schupman do the "Marriage Tango," to which I can relate. Schupman pumps her fists, insisting that she's married and overworked, but that "tonight, I'm gonna have sex."


9:38 Family car trips are spoofed in "On the Highway of Love," with some of the most creative and hilarious use of simple props I've ever seen onstage. McColm, as a bored little boy staring out the window, steals the scene.


9:47 Caprile and Jorgensen appear as an elderly couple, married 30 years, at breakfast -- newspaper, toast, plaid bathrobes. He keeps wondering in song, "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You?" All those "futile fights" over the years, but no. Lovely, sentimental, one of the evening's highlights -- wonderfully and comically undercut by Jorgensen's "Did you say something?"


9:54 Brush makes a dating video. She conveys the brutal honesty of a woman who has been through a lot.


10:11 An elderly man tries to pick up a senior-citizen babe in (let's say) an inappropriate setting. McColm switches from sketch comedy to a lightly sentimental song, "I Can Live With That," just like that. The stereotype gets busted: Old people aren't sexless, humorless, waiting to die. What they are is a lot more tolerant, of themselves and others. They could teach us a great deal. McColm does.


10:22 Title song. Director Kim Roberts choreographs a nice dance: On "now change," each of the three pairs switches partners, making visual representations of what we all try to do and know we shouldn't.


10:29 For this CenterStage production, some much-deserved applause. I loved much of it; it wasn't perfect; writing about it won't effect much change. Still, as they left, people were humming. Arms circled around waists. Couples, set to face a future that probably won't be cloying but certainly will be unpredictable, pulled their jackets tight around them and headed out into the snow.





Publication date: 02/05/04

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