Before taking a seat in the 2nd Street Theater last night to take in Couple Dating, the locally written and produced play by Cricket Daniel was already well on my radar. In fact, it had jammed my radar...like in that scene in Spaceballs.
Last week, we ran a letter to the editor from a reader who found the three-act comedy offensive, thus igniting an avalanche of web commentary and also creating some street chatter and Facebook posturing. Word was that The Source Weekly wasn't running a review as to censor the play because it was so recklessly offensive. Obviously, that wasn't the case.
And that's because Couple Dating isn't all that offensive. That isn't to say, however, that it won't be offensive to some theatergoers, and understandably so, as the play is drenched in intentionally inflammatory sexual comments, ignorance-laced slurs and one bare ass while also including more wiener and nards jokes than most people have heard since the eighth grade. But offensive? Not really - and that's because when it aims for edginess, it seems to lean far too heavily on clichés.
That isn't to say it isn't funny, because it is - at least to people who like Everybody Loves Raymond or Two and a Half Men. And that's a lot of people. Others, however, might not. This comedy is not satire, as is common in theater, it's rather straight ahead TV-style joking.
Couple Dating is focused on an Italian-Catholic Brooklyn couple - Bobby (Jeremy Johnson), a super-douchey auto shop owner and Tess (Vanessa Farnsworth), a stay-at-home mom and saint of a woman who spends most of her time caring for the couple's young daughter (who is never seen in the play). When Tess decides they need to branch out and meet new friends, she and Jason begin inviting a series of couples over for dinner, hoping they'll become new BFFs.
The first couple is a stock trader and his wife, who we soon learn are Jewish (which stuns Bobby back into 1950, where it seems he belongs) and quite wealthy, which doesn't mesh well with Bobby's blue-collar worldview. Thus, the date is cut short and the couple rushed out the door. Next to visit Tess and Bobby are Lauren (Penelope Jo Mann) and Toni (Kym Anderson), who turn out to be a lesbian couple. Again, Bobby is stunned by these "carpetmunchers" (as he calls them at one point before evolving to "lesbos" and eventually "lesbians"), yet ultimately buddies up to Toni. Last on the dating trail are Nathalie (Jenny MacKenzie) and Scott (KPOV's Mike Ficher), who seem to be a perfect match - mostly because Scott offers to take Bobby courtside for some Knicks games (apparently Bobby doesn't know that the Knicks suck). In the end, however, this couple doesn't work out, either, because Nathalie and Scott turn out to be swingers - again smashing the naïve lens through which Bobby sees the world.
Director Susan Benson uses a kitchen/living room set excellently designed by Timothy Pflum to give the characters plenty of realistic business. Benson also succeeds in capturing the awkwardness that occurs when couples are forced to interact in these sort of scheduled social encounters.
Vanessa Farnsworth, as Tess, provides the play's strongest performance, a nice follow-up to her hilarious appearance in Evil Dead: The Musical, delivering her machine-gun-paced string of quips with excellent precision. While his character is impossible to actually like (unless you enjoy the idea of a sociopathic Homer Simpson), Jeremy Johnson does play an excellent PBR-swilling everyman-gone-down-the-crapper with his portrayal of Bobby. Jenny MacKenzie (another Evil Dead alum), as one half of the swinging couple, also serves up another outlandishly solid performance.
So is Couple Dating funny? Yes, I suppose it is. The almost-exclusively silver-haired audience (which Daniel told me has not made up the majority for all performances) on Thursday night laughed nonstop throughout the production and even gave a standing ovation at the final curtain. But some might not laugh much because of the slightly dated sitcom comedy formula Daniel employs as her vehicle for humor. At times, it seems like the jokes are waiting for a laugh track and most of the quips are directly on the nose and rely almost completely on the well-worn clichés that have long been used to lampoon traditional American couples: men are slobs, women like to shop, men drink beer, women get the short end of the stick.
The thing to remember about this sort of humor, however, is that a hell of a lot of people do indeed like it, which is why Chuck Lorre is one of the most successful comedy television producers of all time. People like Lorre smartly succeed by creating something that's familiar and in the case of this play, it helps people confirm their belief that their chosen way to live is correct. And again, the audience, for the most part, laughed mightily at the Thursday night performance - even at the unfortunately stereotypical scene involving a clichéd lesbian couple that seemed like it was created for people who've never actually met a lesbian couple. They seemed all the way to the end of the play, which concludes somewhat bizarrely in that the characters don't necessarily show any evidence of having experienced any sort of emotional change - ignorance is rewarded.
The play is the first effort for Daniel, so that needs to be taken into consideration and she, at the very least, deserves credit for putting on this production largely on her own. Perhaps more than anything, the play is a study in comedy in that it makes us - at least for this review - think about what's funny and why, thus displaying perhaps a comedic divide that's not always visible. It's like the difference between those who find Jay Leno funny and those who don't. Couple Dating is probably for Leno fans.
To come full circle, this play is hardly controversial. But is it funny, we ask again? Well, depends on who you're talking to.
Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm. Sunday matinees at 3pm. $20/adults, $18/students and seniors. Go to www.2ndstreettheater.com. Through April 24. 2nd Street Theater, 220 NE Lafayette Ave.