A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage
nytheatre.com review by Ethan Angelica
August 17, 2009
With slanted picket fence hanging above the stage and four checkered cubes recalling the soda fountains of 1950s America, it's easy to assume that A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage is simply a comic lampooning of the Levittown homemaker lifestyle and its accompanying social guidance films, with a few up-to-date jokes thrown in for good measure. And that, perhaps, is playwright Robert Bastron's genius. He prepares his audience for a feel-good evening of stereotype-laden theatre, and then turns the tables, offering a hilariously compelling and earnest story of two relationships that don't turn out as you'd expect.
The play follows two couples, the Lawrences and the Henrys of Iowa, from courtship to marriage, under the careful tutelage of an unseen announcer (played by Chris Henry Coffey). The Lawrences, high school sweethearts Abigail and Mason, follow the announcer's instructions to the letter: enjoying milkshakes and "popular music" while "going steady," and enduring a rather uncomfortable attempt at consummation on their wedding night. The Henrys, bookish Daniel and naughty Ruth, begin their relationship with a rendezvous on the library floor. The announcer offers textbook tips to both Danny and Abby along the way (many of which aren't as sure-fire as he promises), but we soon discover that the perfect relationships each had hoped for are not working out as expected. Soon, the cliches fall away, worlds collide, romances shift, and everybody starts to dream of new adventures.
What is most effective about this well-realized production is the honesty and freshness that the actors and director Adam Fitzgerald have found within worn stereotypes. Beyond some minor faults (pacing in the more dramatic moments seems very slow and some of the "passage-of-time" blackouts kill the jokes they are intended to punctuate), the production runs with a quirky humanity that is at once unexpected and fun. Autumn Hurlbert's perky housewife Abby must endure some harsh choices between the ideals she has learned and the life she has, and she executes an exceptionally nuanced performance. Likewise, AJ Shively's Danny is exciting to watch as he "mans up" and starts to come into his own. Meredith Forlenza is great fun as Ruth, and Lee Aaron Rosen's take on Mason is right out of a 1950s home economics video. The supporting cast, while underused, is also superb, with special kudos to Anna Stone's eccentric nurse Ellen and Monica West's hilariously self-actualized Sheryl. For a FringeNYC show, Lisa Zinni has crafted a dizzying number of period-perfect costumes, and Tim McMath's versatile set provides a multitude of locales, all realized in smoothly choreographed shifts.