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Theater review: 'Clever Little Lies'

“Clever Little Lies” delivers big laughs but no big truths.

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Adultery has finite permutations. All have been thoroughly explored by country music, so I need not repeat them here. Suffice to say, Joe DiPietro’s “Clever Little Lies” explores two of them at Florida 

Studio Theatre.

Billy (Christopher M. Smith) and Jane (Allyson Jean Malandra) are a happily married, 30-something couple with a newborn baby. But Billy’s been having an aerobic affair with his 23-year-old personal trainer — and he’s thinking of leaving his wife for good. (“I Lost My Flab, Then Lost My Heart To You” would be the country music song title.) Keyed up with guilt, Billy spills his secret to his father, Bill Sr. (Jon Shaver), in the locker room after a tennis game. Billy just had to tell somebody; Bill Sr. is agog with shock. But Billy makes his father promise to keep the guilty secret from his mother, Alice (Rita Rehn). But Alice — who’s a combination of Sherlock Holmes and mind reader — pulls it out of him. Mom invites the kids over for cheesecake and interrogation. They talk, dance around the topic and experience no weepy revelations. Until the conversation takes a sharp left turn — and another affair is revealed. (I’d give you the second country music song title, but that’d give the show away.)

Jon Shaver and Rita Rehn. Photo by Matthew Holler
Jon Shaver and Rita Rehn. Photo by Matthew Holler

Rehn’s Alice is a motor-mouth — but there’s a sharp mind at work behind her words. Her character seems ditzy, but that’s a ruse to make unsuspecting people drop their guard. Smith is good as a testosterone-poisoned obsessive who’s inflamed with desire and immune to logic. Malandra has the fluid, expressive face of a born comedian. She’s great as Jane, when she gets a chance. But her character’s little more than a sketch. Jane never finds out about her husband’s affair. The other characters talk around her. Jane remains clueless, and that bugs me. 

Shaver’s Bill Sr. is basically the normal guy minding his own business, who ends up floored and flummoxed by other people’s lust, craziness and deceit. In a cartoon, he’d be the character flattened on the road. In movie from the 1940s, he’d be a ringer for Jimmy Stewart.

It’s a one-act play, and that’s all it needs to be. Kate Alexander directs with the snappy rhythms the material demands. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s set flies apart and reforms in various configurations like an inventive piece of Victorian luggage. Kathleen Geidard’s costumes don’t look like costumes. They’re exactly what the characters would wear — and that’s always the point.

Christopher M. Smith. Photo by Matthew Holler
Christopher M. Smith. Photo by Matthew Holler

The playwright cleverly dishes out new revelations — and carefully punctuates the big reveals with gags to keep things from getting too heavy. DiPietro’s got a good ear for dialogue, though he tends to skew to sit-com rhythms. His gags are funny, but often predictable. Billy curses. Bill Sr. says, “I didn’t raise you to !@#$% curse so much!” Ba-da-boom.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” this isn’t. It’s light material, folks. Light material, occasionally dressed up as heavy stuff. But you see right through it to well-crafted     sit-com writing.

As opposed to writing (funny or serious) that knocks all the chess pieces off the board, a sit-com always hits the reset button, bringing everything back to the status quo. 

“Clever Little Lies” drops a 20-megaton revelation on you — and the play suddenly feels like it’s entering new territory. And that’s when it ends. Probably just as well. If all this happened to real people, the second act wouldn’t be very funny.

And funny’s what it’s all about.

Christopher M. Smith and Jon Shaver. Photo by Matthew Holler
Christopher M. Smith and Jon Shaver. Photo by Matthew Holler

DiPietro’s reach doesn’t exceed his grasp. He’s written a funny play that occasionally touches on serious questions — while deftly avoiding any serious answers. 

Why is adultery bad, anyway? Well, uh, adultery has collateral damage. On families and relationships. Good to know. 

So, is cheating hard-wired in humanity’s DNA? The playwright appears to lean in that direction, but avoids a definitive position. Are clever lies better than harsh truths? Ah. Another good question. Which the playwright also ducks.

If you’ve ever heard a country song, you’re doubtless familiar with the far more philosophical speculations of Williams, Parton and Haggard. If you’re looking for hard answers, look there. If you’re looking for a few laughs on a well-explored topic, you’ve come to the right place.


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