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December 20, 2012

Marriage undergoes volleys in Performance Workshop Theatre's 'Mixed Doubles'

A caption in King Vidor's silent classic from 1928, "The Crowd," reads: "Marriage isn't a word. It's a sentence."

The couples in "Mixed Doubles: An Entertainment on Marriage," a multi-playwright piece from 1969 enjoying an effective revival at Performance Workshop Theatre, have all been altered in some way by the life-term aspect of matrimony, the weight of that whole for-better-or-worse thing.

It even affects the first twosome to appear, in "A Man's Best Friend" by James Saunders. Newlyweds Jackie and Pete, are still on a train heading toward their honeymoon, but already experiencing communication blips.

Pete's voice is prone to stammer, his foot to tap mindlessly. And he will do anything to change the topic of conversation, which Jackie keeps trying to steer toward sensual matters.

Over the course of eight short plays by British authors, "Mixed Doubles" provides a journey through the marital state, from first night to twilight years.

It's an often amusing view -- often uncomfortable, too, in the way it can cut close to the bone. By the time the aged couple in the final scene sits in a cemetery, talking in circles about tombstones and kippers, it's clear that after "I do" can come an awful lot of "I don't."

Things might have looked much different had there been more than one woman represented among the authors of this "entertainment." A skewed perspective seems unavoidable under such circumstances.

Still, the two sides of each duo depicted in these intriguing plays get an airing, in one way or another. And the ultimate take-home message is at least vaguely reassuring -- people may marry, or stay married, for the wrong reasons, but ...

there's a lot to be said for the effort.

Today, that effort can be undertaken in several countries, and several states in ours, by members of the same gender, a prospect unimaginable when "Mixed Doubles" premiered more than four decades ago -- or when Performance Workshop Theatre presented the work in 1995.

Company co-artistic director Marc Horwitz has taken note of the societal changes by persuasively tweaking one of the pieces this time around, Alan Ayckbourn's "Countdown," so that a same-sex couple can be included.

"Countdown" centers on a relationship that has long settled into routine, with little chance of surprise. Each of the characters breaks the fourth wall periodically to discuss his partner's annoying habits. But, gradually, it becomes clear that the bond beneath the bittersweet surface is, somehow, a little more sweet than bitter.

Tony Colavito and Michael Donlan bring out that deeper layer in "Countdown," while deftly handling the dry (OK, bitchy) wit in the script.

Donlan also shines as the jumpy Pete in "A Man's Best Friend," opposite Britt OIsen-Ecker's colorful portrayal of the eager bride Jackie. They put a good deal of bite into what could be just a Britcom scene.

These actors also get a good workout in "Score," Lyndon Brook's play centering on one half of a mixed doubles tennis match. The zingers fly during the game (the other couple is not seen or heard), as edgy Harry and deceptively ditsy Sheila work through a whole mess of tension, ambition, resentment and jealousy in between serves -- and, of course, faults.

In Alun Owen's "Norma," Donlan, again paired with Olsen-Ecker, is effective as a man grappling with the reality that he had a lot more invested in an extramarital affair than the woman in question.

Katherine Lyons and Colavito do impressive, subtle work in Harold Pinter's "Night," a brilliant little piece that presents a dark spin on the old Lerner and Loewe song "I Remember It Well," with a man and wife constantly correcting memories of their past.

But much more is at stake here than clarity of recollection, since each memory is so important. In compact, expertly chiseled phrases, Pinter peels away the surface of the relationship to expose the frayed nerve endings underneath.

Fay Weldon's "Permanence" presents the case of Peter and Helen, sharing their usual tent during their usual vacation. Helen has broken her glasses this time, which just might mean that she will begin to see clearly.

Lyons and Colavito could bring more drive to "Permanence" -- for that matter, the pacing of the whole production is a little on the deliberate side -- but they make this slender scene click.

The actors also delve potently into "Silver Wedding," John Bowen's scathing vignette. Colavito is excellent as the spring-loaded husband feigning nonchalance as he arrives late on his anniversary night. Lyons conveys the wife's stoicism and hurt with equal finesse.

This pair of performers gets the last word in "Mixed Doubles," performing David Campton's "Resting Place" with a good deal of charm, making it possible to believe that, sometimes, a good cup of tea with a life-partner can be enough.

Greggory S. Schraven's efficient, minimal set is smoothly lit by Jonathan Dillard.

As he did in his 1995 production, Horwitz uses live cello music to provide a connective thread between the plays (the work originally incorporated monologues by a ninth writer). While the company's fine staging of "Breaking the Code" in September might have benefited from music between scenes, "Mixed Doubles" might be better off with a little less of it.

Cellist Tim Anderson, perched in a subtly lit spot upstage, offers plenty of expression, but much of what he plays is too long, glum and repetitive, establishing a Chekhovian tone that doesn't seem quite right.

In the end, though, this thoughtful production, with its well-paired actors, nets considerable rewards.

"Mixed Doubles" continues through Jan. 14.

PHOTO (of Katherine Lyons and Tony Colavito): Marc Horwitz/Performance Workshop Theatre

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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