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Clever Little Lies

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Marlo Thomas and Greg Mullavey
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Marlo Thomas still knows her way around a sitcom. How to punch lines. How to hold for a laugh. How to inspire a laugh when the writing doesn't. And, perhaps most important, how to hold up a whole flailing enterprise when the solitary joke around which the whole presentation has been constructed deflates before your very eyes. Yes, her long-trademarked off-kilter likability and wry knowingness also help, but sometimes it's the sharply honed technical skills and not the innate gifts that matter more.

So it hardly matters that the once-upon-a-time star of That Girl is not exactly the central figure of Clever Little Lies—that would imply that Joe DiPietro's woozy new comedy upstairs at the Westside Theatre has a center, and I'm not sure it does. But when Thomas is onstage, which she is almost nonstop for the last three-quarters or so of the 90-minute evening, you're in excellent hands. You'll chuckle, feel things, maybe even be surprised once or twice, and it will all unfold in a completely blithe, nonthreatening way. You won't be challenged intellectually, emotionally, or psychologically. Leave your seat just as though you're switching over to an 11-o'clock news broadcast on some other network. Enjoy what's here, then leave it here.

Take, for example, some of her jokes in her first scene, the play's second. Her character, Alice, has just arrived home from her job at a bookstore. Her first line upon entering, to her husband, Bill (Greg Mullavey): "I've got Tai Chi at the high school so I left you some chicken in the fridge. Don't put salt on it, it's low-sodium—it's supposed to taste like that."

Or, moments later, when complaining about dealing with the latest sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey at work: "Five and they're completely unreadable!" Bill says, "Didn't you read them?" And the expected riposte: "Of course. I read all of them and they were all unreadable."

Or, much later still, when she must explain to her son Billy (George Merrick) and his wife, Jane (Kate Wetherhead), why she's not eating the cheesecake she bought for their visit: "I'm saving all my calories for alcohol."

Kate Wetherhead, George Merrick, Marlo Thomas, and Greg Mullavey,
Photo by Matthew Murphy

When delivering lines like these, Thomas's smoky voice and intensely tight focus keeps her so in the moment that you accept the zaniness as logical within this universe. And when things get darker later, she has to pull back on the light overtones just a bit to send the message that the fun and games are at last over, and we all need to be still for a few minutes. It's masterful artistry of performance within a limited window, which is just fine given that Clever Little Lies asks for—and would benefit-from no more.

For all intents and purposes aside from length, this is a half-hour sitcom. There's the outline of the problem: Billy tells Dad that he's having an affair with his 23-year-old personal trainer, Jasmine, and begs him not tell Mom. There's the scene where Alice pesters Bill and guesses Billy's woes from his silence and insists on having the kids over. There's a tense encounter between Billy and Jane in the car on the way to Alice and Bill's that let us see the fault lines in their relationships. The misunderstandings, misdirection, secrets kept and exposed, and stunning last-minute confession from an unexpected source, before the maybe-happy-maybe-not conclusion are likewise all according to the rule book.

But DiPietro is so derivative of the form that he's innovated little and added nothing except time, which is the least useful commodity here. Paper-thin comedy, especially of the TV variety, thrives on economy: If you have too much time to think, it's sunk. Every scene both is too long and conveys too little information. Most of the conflicts are haphazardly manufactured; for example, I couldn't determine any reason the super-careful Billy wouldn't turn off his phones and tell Jasmine where he was except that DiPietro needs him to get "caught." And, given how vital Jasmine is to the story and ostensibly Billy, it stretches credibility for him to have no scenes with her.

There are bigger problems, too. Merrick and Wetherhead play their bickering couple mostly with harsher-edged barks and chronic irritation that leave you aching for Billy and Jane's marriage to be saved. A huge plot twist that Alice initiates near the end is so confused that it's utterly unclear whether or not she's joking about it until, automatically and emphatically, she somehow needs to be telling the truth. Most devastating is the constantly lurching tone: This plays is just not that funny, and its serious moments veer more toward mean than searching. Director David Saint has delivered a slickly oiled production (the sleek, elegant sets are by Yoshi Tanokura), and has inspired his actors to attack it valiantly (Mullavey's constant deadpan is right on key, if overparted), but he can't work past or around these troubles.

Only Thomas truly gets that Clever Little Lies is disposable and forgettable and treats it accordingly. She gives you reason to care about Alice even when there's no reason to care about anything else, and keeps you wanting to see where she'll go next and how she'll get there. It's the minimum expected of such a star turn, of course—Thomas doesn't create lasting fireworks—but at least it's something. If nothing else, her having to make something of lines like "It's exactly like the day you stop picking your spouse up at the airport. The first time the sentence 'Can't you take a cab?' comes out of your mouth, one of you might as well call a lawyer." is deserving of Emmy consideration in my book.

Clever Little Lies
Through January 3
Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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