The phrase “chamber theater” isn’t necessarily a term of art, but you’re right if you draw the same inference from it as you would from “chamber music” – the entry is vastly scaled down from its multimember counterpart, as if it’s to be performed in a small room. There’s some method to this approach. Just because your musical’s a tiny little thing doesn’t put its conflicting points of view any less at odds.
Comes then Romance/Romance, an off-Broadway chamber piece that somehow made it to Broadway amid the latter’s penchant for blockbuster fare. Barry Harman’s book and lyrics and Keith Herrmann’s music surely served their purposes, scoring five Tony nominations and a Drama Desk nod in 1988, and the two-play format feeds into a single shared song with a self-explanatory title (“It’s Not Too Late”). The current North Coast Repertory Theatre entry features two wildly different settings about two couples apparently weary of Easy Street – one duo, from the upper crust, visits a ramshackle neighborhood in hopes of finding true love, and the other, decidedly middle class, tempts fate amid the prospect of an extramarital affair.
Director Rick Simas is great here at using the physical stage for his portrayals in both plays – but while the first tale holds a certain interest amid its antiquated setting and flights of fancy, the second barely registers as a story at all.
“The Little Comedy,” adapted from an Arthur Schnitzler short story, centers on the saga of Alfred von Wilmers and Josefine Weninger, members of privileged 19th-century Vienna and quickly tiring of the charade that comes with money. Josefine will shed her finery for a shopgirl’s sartorials; Alfred changes from his princely duds into those of a low-rent, self-styled poet. Joey and Al venture into the nether neighborhoods of the lower class, meet, declare their affections and set out to survive (or try to survive) the newfound adversities, notably the bad food and the badder bugs.
Melissa WolfKlain and Lance Arthur Smith are fine as the skeptical and curious courtesans, with Smith exploiting Alfred’s unassuming nature and WolfKlain making the most of the character’s chirpiness when it counts. Jill Townsend and Jeffrey Scott Parsons play the hired help, and their dance numbers are useful in reflecting the levels of the principals’ relationship. They make up a bed for the main characters at one point; their poker faces during this scene change couldn’t be cuter.
The end of the evening follows in the form of “Summer Share,” a thoroughly flaccid look at the modern whys and wherefores behind the potential for an affair between a couple married to other people. Monica (WolfKlain) and Sam (Smith), “best friends” forever, nearly succumb to themselves during a trip to a beach cottage in the Hamptons while Barb (Townsend) and Lenny (Parsons), their spouses, look on.
It’s not that Monica and Sam’s platonic friendship is too hard to swallow (I once had a married female pal who doubled as a drinking/pool buddy, and I don’t think the next level ever even occurred to us); it’s that this story lacks any semblance of authorial foundation. Jules Renard’s 1898 play “La Pain de Menáge,” which serves as the basis for this show, simply has to be more solid than we’re led to believe, if only by default – as it is, we’re stuck with wholesale storytelling rather than story-showing, dialogues that constantly back into the characters and a predictable trail of events leading to a climax we already know won’t unfold. The players’ voices and a very cute Barb and Lenny dance number are all that save this entry from its sketch-comedy underpinnings. [php snippet=1]
Ron Councell’s music direction and the tech effort for both shows, especially Marty Burnett’s set, have the chamber idea in hand, and Simas’ prudent use of the stage is more apparent in “The Little Comedy,” but that’s likely because he has so very, very little to work with in the second piece. Meanwhile, Romance/Romance is clearly hit and miss for North Coast, and more literally than you might imagine. If “The Little Comedy” can be called a hit, then “Summer Share” is a quite serious miss.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of July 12. Romance/Romance runs through Aug. 3 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $44-$51. 858-481-1055, northcoastrep.org.