Big Dawg Productions opens their “‘Tis the Season” season with Bernard Slade’s “Romantic Comedy” at Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. Perhaps best known for creating “The Flying Nun” and “The Partridge Family,” Slade’s stage-writing career is not to be scoffed at; he’s worked with greats like Jack Lemmon and Ellen Burstyn because of it. “Romantic Comedy” owes a lot to Noel Coward and Neil Simon; fans of both playwrights will find much to enjoy about this production.
The show follows successful playwright Jason Carmichael (Bryan Cournoyer), who has been abandoned by his long-time writing partner and collaborator. His agent, Blanche (Clare Kiley), has been trying to find him another collaborator. Through a mix-up of dates, the prospective new writing partner, PJ Craddock (Susan Auten), shows up on his wedding day instead of a week later. In spite of her frumpy, dumpy appearance and social insecurities, she is obviously the woman that Carmichael should be marrying—not the sleek, beautiful, empty Allison St. James (Erin Hunter). Instead, they embark on a long and successful writing collaboration fueled by their shared passion of unacknowledged love. Finally, Craddock breaks from Carmichael to marry Leo Janowitz, a Times reporter who is kind, decent, and truly loves her. As with all true rom-coms, that doesn’t resolve anything; it only heightens the tension. Naturally, hilarity ensues.
In his director’s note, Nick Smith talks extensively about how casting the show made everything else fall into place. Reflecting upon the performances, I can only agree with him. But how does anyone make Susan Auten, a beautiful, elegant woman, look so dowdy and frumpy? Yes, it is an incredible contrast, as it is meant to be, with Cournoyer’s sophisticated, natty appearance. Still, it’s a surprise to see.
Auten and Cournoyer not only contrast each other for the unstated “odd couple” motif, but their rapid-fire comedic dialogue remains top notch and only surpassed by acting that demonstrates the palpable unspoken desire between them. Together, the performance illustrates exactly what the playwright is trying to communicate: Separately, they are both talented, but together they create something greater than the sum of their parts.
Of particular note and surprise: Chase Harrison’s performance as Janowitz. Harrison exhibits tremendous growth as a performer. Over the last couple of years, he’s taken on numerous roles, but this is the first time I have seen him play a real adult—not an adolescent or someone in their early 20s. His Janowitz is startling in depth and sincerity. Also, he makes an excellent foil for the narcissistic Carmichael. He genuinely loves Craddock and wants what is best for her as a person.
His restrained performance during the incredibly awkward “massage scene,” when his wife and Carmichael are obviously having a coded discussion about their relationship in front of him, is a marvel. It’s much more powerful because Harrison doesn’t give way to emoting. The space in the playhouse is intimate enough that we can see all the detail on Auten’s face, as her struggle to choose between these two men play out a series of complex maneuverers.
Cournoyer has his hands full as Jason Carmichael, a complex and difficult character. More than just developing Carmichael, Cournoyer takes his job as the lead seriously. He sets up the joke to toss the ball to other players and keeps the pacing forward-moving. He alternately revels in and despises the strange and difficult household around his marriage and professional life. Rather than treat all the women in his life the same, as mirrors for his own grandeur and tools for his success, he really does have individual relationships with each. He and Kiley are particularly funny together. They bait each other in a way that only old friends in a secure relationship could.
Aaron Willings has a geometric mind that must keep him up at nights. He primarily has made a name for himself as a set designer, working very small, inflexible spaces with very little offstage storage. These constraints require him to design backgrounds that transform and change onstage rather than moving everything off stage and replacing them with other flats and drops. Yet again, when presented with an apartment that has to age over more than a decade, rather than just coming through and changing the pictures on the walls, he placed panels that actually revolve in place (like the letters on “Wheel of Fortune”). It successfully shows time-lapse and Carmichael’s downward spiral without Craddock in his life. Willings’ work is starting to seem like a poet with a sonnet: Given the constraints of form, he can produce something more beautiful and powerful than if he had free reign and unlimited resources.
It looks like Big Dawg has scored a hit with their season opener. Extra chairs came out last weekend to accommodate enough seating for the sold-out show.
We are fortunate to live in a town with so much live theatre. Following Browncoat’s sold out run of “Gallery” and local playwright John Grudzien’s “Pole Vaulting Over Skyscrapers” last weekend, it is wonderful to see audiences supporting the hard work of our talented community. Let us hope this auspicious beginning of the year is an indication of what we have to look forward to for the rest of 2014.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Feb. 20th – 23rd, Feb. 27th – Mar. 2nd, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street
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