Fort Worth — Playwright Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) holds a little rubber mallet right above our collective funnybone in his latest work, Clever Little Lies—tickling us into laughter at one moment, banging down painfully the next. The sitcom setup for this season-opener at Circle Theatre is classic material, yet the 90-minute piece (played without intermission) keeps us a bit off balance and on edge, wondering if we can keep laughing as things take a darker turn. Selling all this changeable, lurching emotion takes a fine-tuned cast—and happily, Circle’s is up to the job.
Wall Streeter Billy (Jake Buchanan) banters with his father Bill Sr. (Bill Jenkins) in a locker room, full of jokes and jibes…until, suddenly, he’s sobbing into his sweaty gym bag. Billy admits to cheating on wife Jane (Kelsey Milbourn), not to mention their new baby daughter, with a perky personal trainer who “inspires” him and makes life fun again. She’s 23.
“That’s not a person, that’s an age!” sputters Bill Sr.—and the whole thing’s a fantasy, he tells his son. “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!”
Buchanan is hilarious and annoying as the very model of the modern new dad. He’s oh so jealous of his wife’s focus on baby Emily. He whines about the life he’s been “tricked’ into, and pines loudly after his lost…whatever. (Youth? Sexual excitement? Freedom?) As Bill Sr., Jenkins is wonderfully old-school, swiping a desperate hand across his craggy face, trying hard to give his testosterone-happy son a crash course in how to be a real man—by honoring the commitments he’s already made.
And clearly, this is something Bill Sr. has thought about.
"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."
But Billy is in the throes of romance, and sure there’s a way around dad’s boring philosophy: Come up with “some clever lies” for your spouse, and you can do what you want, get away with anything in your marriage. No harm, no foul.
So far, we’ve only heard from the men. Plug in the women of these two marital equations, and things start to add up differently. Billy’s young wife Jane may be exhausted and in need of a shampoo (Milbourn’s authentic new-mom bedhead and baggy sweater tell you all you need to know), but she’s no fool and no patsy. She’s using that head, trying to understand her husband’s moods and anger, trying to make choices about the future. Billy’s mother Alice (Linda K. Leonard), who keeps up her “hot wife” body by working out at the same gym Billy uses, is a perky juggernaut. Bill Sr. rightly fears she’ll sniff out the secret he’s keeping about their son—and once she’s “extracted” information about the affair (even though he hasn’t said one word!) she’s unstoppable. Can these kids’ marriage be saved? You betcha. Leonard is chirpy and relentless—and very funny, as long as she isn’t your mom.
How far will she go, and how much will she put at risk, to keep Emily’s young parents together? Alice is all in—and where she’s heading will surprise everyone, perhaps her husband most of all. More than anything, she fiercely hopes to make her son see that the shine and sparkle of “the other”—the different choice, the road not taken (yet)—is seldom worth the loss of what you already have.
Director Steven Pounders once again shows deftness with the details of domestic life that made last season’s Other Desert Cities work so well. And though the focus of this piece, which just finished its off-Broadway run, is definitely on conversation, not location, Clare Floyd DeVries quick-change set is cleverly done, morphing in just one swift movement from boy’s locker room to sleek living space.
Clever Little Lies, a few script quibbles aside, marks a strong start for Circle Theatre’s 35th season, one they’re calling “The Year of the Playwright.” This marks the fourth DiPietro show for the company, which put up a cluster of his plays in the early 2000s: I Love You... in 2001, Over the River and Through the Woods in 2002, and The Kiss at City Hall in 2003. The season continues with work from four of Circle’s favorite playwrights: Michael Hollinger (Hope & Gravity, 2014); Tom Dudzick (Miracle on South Division Street, 2013); Lauren Gunderson (Exit, Pursued By a Bear, 2013); and Bruce Graham (Stella and Lou, 2014).