Review: “Clever Little Lies” at Penguin Rep Theatre

John P. McCarthy 

  • Associate New York Theatre Critic

While doubtlessly conversant with the medium, those born after 1990 probably don’t appreciate the full extent of television’s influence on American culture. Prior to the advent of the personal computer, the Internet and cell phones, TV was how people got most of their information and entertainment.

As to whether that was a good or a bad thing, those of us who were weaned on television remain conflicted. Knowing firsthand that it often feels like a “vast wasteland”—to borrow former Federal Communications Chairman Newton Minow’s famous description—we can testify to the pernicious effects of countless hours spent in front of the boob tube. But we’re just as quick to wax nostalgic about the shows, characters and jingles that delighted, manipulated, and occasionally edified and unified us during our formative years.

This train of thought pertains to “Clever Little Lies,” a comedy that opened this past weekend at Penguin Rep in Rockland County, for multiple reasons and on several levels. First off, one of the four actors appearing in the play is Richard Kline. Kline played Larry, the best friend of John Ritter’s character Jack Tripper on “Three’s Company,” one of the most frivolous, brainless sitcoms of its era (1977-1984) and maybe of all time. This isn’t a slam on Kline, at least insofar as his comparatively understated performance in the play is comedic gold.

 (from left to right): Jordan Sobel (Billy), Bridget Gabbe (Jane), Jana Robbins (Alice), Richard Kline (Bill, Sr.). Credit: Chris Yacopino

(from left to right): Jordan Sobel (Billy), Bridget Gabbe (Jane), Jana Robbins (Alice), Richard Kline (Bill, Sr.). Credit: Chris Yacopino

A second, more substantive reason for linking “Clever Little Lies” with television is that both the tone and structure of the piece have the ring of a situation comedy—one that resembles a cross between a sex farce and an AARP infomercial. The characters are thinly drawn and, as with most things geared toward a mass audience, the tension between conformity and individual desire is resolved in favor of social cohesiveness. 

This summation isn’t entirely fair to writer Joe DiPietro, who won a Tony for the book of the musical “Memphis” and penned the long-running Broadway revue “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” He offers a reasonably funny, wise and up-to-date slant on the institution of marriage. Like many a sitcom or small-screen dramedy (and, it must be said, an equal percentage of books, movies and theatrical works) it has enough insight and humor to function as more than just a time-killing diversion. Put differently, it’s shallow in a totally acceptable way.

Although it seems designed to console and validate a huge demographic—married Baby Boomers disposed to tough-out rocky unions—it does provide vivid glimpses and powerful intimations of what it costs to honor ones matrimonial bonds. Making a marriage last is exhausting, exasperating work.

Kline plays Bill, a late-middle-aged professional whom we meet alongside his son Billy (Jordan Sobel) in the locker room after their weekly tennis match. A thirtyish husband and father of a newborn, Billy proceeds to bare his soul to his father (and his rear end to the audience—nudity alert!), when he confesses he’s madly in love with a twenty-three-year-old fitness trainer named Jasmine. Thrown and slightly appalled by this revelation, Bill counsels his son to end the affair immediately. With good reason, both men are concerned that the elder Bill won’t be able to keep the news a secret from his wife Alice (Jana Robbins). Sure enough, that evening Alice quickly intuits there’s something wrong with their son’s marriage and swings into action, insisting Billy and his spouse Jane (Bridget Gabbe) come over for dessert. The way she extracts further details about what’s going on is hilarious. And before the night is over, more dirty laundry will be aired.

DiPietro’s script is peppered with salty language and some sexually explicit banter. During the first scene, his pithy one-liners and astute observations are outnumbered by jokes that don’t quite land. Part of the reason for this concerns his intention to be timely. The play premiered in 2013 at the George Street Playhouse and, while I don’t know if it’s been revised, some of the references sound dated. Five years is a long time in our wired age.

Alice owns a bookstore and in her first speech she launches a tirade against the various indignities she must endure to keep the business afloat, like stocking a sixth iteration of the “Fifty Shades of Gray” series. She laments that people are less interested in actually reading books than in having book-related merchandise; later she rants about the prevalence of phones and other electronic technology.

Director Thomas Caruso ensures that the pacing and energy don’t flag, which is a bigger challenge when it comes to the younger couple. Billy and Jane don’t get many choice lines and basically serve as foils for Bill and Alice. The two meatier roles allow Kline and Robbins to excel. She delivers a bravura turn, but the real soul of the piece is Bill, Sr. and Kline is funny and poignant as the weary patriarch, nominally in control but inclined to defer to the missus. Look and listen closely and he’s battling to stave off cynicism and even despair.

The bouncy pre-curtain music—mod, electric-organ-heavy jazz—harkens back to the “Mad Men” era while also putting me in mind of a TV show that rivaled “Three’s Company” in its zany banality—the anthology comedy series “Love, American Style,” which ran from 1969 to 1974. Once again, scenic designer James Fenton hits it out of the park. His locker room set for scene one is remarkably realistic and when two panels were maneuvered to reveal Bill and Alice’s comfortably appointed living room at the performance I attended, there were oohs and aahs from the audience.

It’s worth mentioning that “Clever Little Lies” concerns a rarefied socio-economic stratum and isn’t an essay in diversity. The problems of these white, upper-middle-class suburbanites can seem trivial in a wider context, despite the universality of many of its points regarding modern love and marriage. And this echoes a theme voiced by Alice when she avers that what we all fear the most is being deemed “inconsequential”—dispensable or insignificant—by those we care about.

In the final analysis, the message is commonsensical and conservative, a defense of the status quo that doesn’t ignore the costs or pain of choosing to uphold tradition and promises, both legal and emotional, that were earnestly and freely made. Another take-away is the degree to which privacy is a chimera in this day and age—and not simply amongst members of a tight-knit family. There’s no such thing as a secret or modesty. Boundaries are rarely respected; everything must be spoken, acted upon, held up and examined. Those wary of spending too much time inside these two fictional marriages will be glad to know “Clever Little Lies” clocks-in at around ninety minutes and there’s no intermission. This allows fidgety theatergoers to avoid serious withdrawal. Attend a performance and you can get back to staring at your television, phone or iPad screen in no time at all.  

“Clever Little Lies” runs at Penguin Rep Theatre, Stony Point, NY through July 22, 2018