Kate Wetherhead, George Merrick, Marlo Thomas, and Greg Mullavey in a scene from Joe DiPietro's Clever Little Lies directed by David Saint at the Westside Theatre. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.
"The pursuit of happiness - that's the problem. They put that in the Declaration of Independence and it's been screwing up this country ever since! We've been promised happiness so we chase it like it's a given! Like it's actually possible! Like you can have it all the time! Here's how life works, Billy -- you do what you do and you live and you love and some of it's good and some of it's terrible and no matter what hand you're dealt, you find the happy in that." -- Joe DiPietro
In Clever Little Lies, every line hits hard. Playwright Joe DiPietro has no mercy as he portrays a cheating husband whose child-obsessed wife coddles her baby with the new-age spirit and energy that make parents dreadful company these days. She cites studies while he shacks up with a physical trainer at his gym.
And then there are his parents, the seemingly happy couple with secrets of their own. They all entangle in a mess of familial intrigue and intimacy, where the stage feels like both a comedy stand and a confessional.
DiPietro's wit bleeds from his pen, and despite the fact that adultery is in the spotlight, most of the play forces you to guffaw until your lungs hurt and you're battling for a gasp of air. The venue has none of the sacrosanct rigidity you might find elsewhere in New York, where audiences present as stoic, quietly polite corpses. At Westside Theatre, it's almost mandated that you laugh aloud, your lively shrieks echoing inside the small upstairs space.
Part of Clever Little Lies' humor comes from its relatability. My friend and I were bemoaning the lack of Broadway and Off-Broadway plays that take place in the 21st century when the lights dimmed and we were immersed in a thoroughly modern Manhattan. Gorgeous sets by Yoshi Tanokura create an environment that is unquestionably contemporary -- projections take you on a journey through Midtown and on the road upstate just as the fall settles in and trees turn color. Perhaps the lifestyle on display counters your own: massive living rooms and tennis court lockers seem a far cry from claustrophobic studio apartments. Still, the world feels familiar. You've been to these locations before, you've had these conversations.
Yes, it's the dialogue that truly grounds Clever Little Lies in our millennium. DiPietro shoots off criticisms of our current literary culture, where hipsters buy F. Scott Fitzgerald t-shirts and Charles Dickens mugs while devouring the latest installment of 50 Shades of Grey. He breathes life into the new mom torn between feminist ideals and maternal tradition. He pokes fun at political correctness and words that have been deemed "offensive" after decades of benignly existing in the U.S. vocabulary. His pointed observations are hysterically tragic; the show is about one family, but it's about American society, too.
Kate Wetherhead, George Merrick, and Marlo Thomas in a scene from Joe DiPietro's Clever Little Lies directed by David Saint at the Westside Theatre. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.
As for the four characters, they're a seemingly successful bunch who hide behind a few fibs to make their lives more bearable. Like in all relationships, there are the people who get hurt, and those who do the hurting; the ones who care the most have the hardest time. Billy launches into an affair with 23-year-old Jasmine, and he claims to love her more than his wife, Jane, whose blowjobs aren't up to his standards. His father, Bill, Sr., reprimands him: "23 isn't a person yet -- it's an age. You have fallen in love with an age." Of course, as a 20-year-old, I beg to differ, but that's probably what an age who isn't a person yet would say.
Anyhow, Bill, Sr.'s wife Alice sniffs out something suspicious in the demeanor of her husband after he returns from tennis practice with their son, and she invites Billy and Jane over for dinner to investigate the problem. Then come peevish calls, yelling, baby monitors, trips to Hawaii, and a barely nibbled cheesecake, all in a house in the suburbs. It's chaos, with no sweet resolution or finite punctuation mark to conclude DiPietro's prose. Just like in reality, things aren't neatly packaged together in a Tiffany parcel with a fluffy white bow.
The cast plays their roles remarkably well. As Bill, Sr., Greg Mullavey croaks like an adoring grandpa, and his deadpan delivery makes up the crux of the comedy. Yet he also has moments of wisdom -- in fact, most of his lines are hued by a taste of invaluable advice. His opening scene is particularly genius, as he tries to knock sense into his heart-sick child who's pining over a mirage of a person half his age: "Tell me one bad thing about her! Just one bad thing that drives you batshit crazy! Aha! You can't! If this was a real relationship, you could name a hundred terrible things!"
Marlo Thomas in a scene from Joe DiPietro's Clever Little Lies directed by David Saint at the Westside Theatre. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.
Marlo Thomas, with her quick, quirky attitude, has all the fire from "That Girl," but none of the awkwardness, as Alice. She carries the most dramatic elements of the work, and her expressions evoke pain, regret, contentment, nostalgia, and wistfulness: whatever the second requires. It's a joy to have her back in a New York black box; her untainted enthusiasm even as a theater veteran imbues her with a freshness that combines nicely with her extensive experience.
George Merrick as Billy is best when he's angry; then, he feels almost too honest. However, as a 30-year-old crybaby, he overacts and lacks verve. Sure, maybe Billy went to Dartmouth on Daddy's dime (or so it seems from his disposition), but you would still hope that a practicing lawyer would not turn into an angsty teenager at the first detection of a pretty girl. Even if he were having an affair, he probably wouldn't blubber like a tot over it.
Finally, there's Kate Wetherhead as Jane. She embodies the millennial mother who just wants to do right by her kid, who posts one too many videos of her baby on Facebook because -- of course -- everyone cares as much as she does that her infant smiled during a car-ride rendition of "What Is Love." She's earnest in her baggy clothes, the exhausted woman who spent her first few decades editing science journals, who now wakes up in the middle of the night to a screaming little girl and almost no help from her spouse. Kate's Jane wanders into the territory of archetype -- not because she isn't real, but because she is. We all know a Jane.
Tie the protagonists together and you're in the middle of a mastermind's analysis of 21st-century relationships. An older couple adapting, trying to stay hip. A younger pair struggling to make marriage work in an Internet age where everything's fast and monogamy becomes a strange, foreign, unnatural concept. Everyone's searching for something that brings out their "shiny side," so they can feel new and excited again, if only for a minute. They're us. They're all of us. They're the grit we don't want to show anyone, the pursuit of happiness we crave so badly.
And so, as we sit in Westside Theatre, we're laughing at ourselves. And that's good. We've become quite ridiculous, and it's about time we giggled about it.
Clever Little Lies plays through January 3, 2016 at the Westside Theatre.