The Marriage Zone
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Secret Rose Theatre
Through August 27
My favorite episodes of Doctor Who, that amazing TV series about a time traveling alien that’s run for about 40 years, are the ones in which the Doctor meets earlier versions of himself. When the older character meets the younger character, there are always jokes about how the younger version hates how he turned out — while the older version always criticizes the younger version’s taste or intelligence or what have you.
Playwright Jeff Gould’s rather sweet comedy about marriage bends time in the same way as one of those Doctor Who episodes, focusing on a married couple who encounter two versions of themselves — one when they are younger and just starting their relationship, and another, when they are a pair of miserable elder divorcees.
Now, if I were to meet my older self, the first thing I’d ask is what stock market tips he might have for me, and what the winning lottery numbers are. However, when folks in plays meet their older selves, they always seem more interested in what, in the real world, I would probably regard as incidental — for example, whether or not they will find romance. Pish tush: Keep the romance, let me know about whether my appendix is going to burst.
Gould’s comedy pays homage to the mood and tone of one of the old Twilight Zone episodes, complete with an opening narration by a somber-voiced fellow (Ciaran Brown) channeling his best Rod Serling. Beth (Anne Leighton) and Cal (Jeff Pride) are a married couple, just entering middle age, with a cranky teenage son (Brown). Their marriage is most assuredly on the rocks, with the current conflict over their family home, which Beth wants to sell (ostensibly to move to a better, more affluent neighborhood), while Cal just wants to save the money.
Just as Cal and Beth start to discuss a separation, there’s a knock on their door. It’s a young, recently engaged couple, Skip (Ryan Cargill) and Ellie (Megan Barker), who are interested in the house. As the two couples talk, they become aware that they have a lot in common — like, everything.
Before they can marvel over the weird meeting, another couple — elderly Mike (Alex Hyde-White) and Liz (Dawn Joyal) — show up on the doorstep, claiming to have lived in the house years ago and wanting to take a look at it, for old times sake. Yes, Mike and Liz turn out to be Beth and Cal thirty years on, as well as Skip and Ellie sixty years on. As the three couples learn of their destinies, complications ensue, and personal history could very well be changed.
Gould’s writing is crisp, glib and playful, and his production engagingly explores the wacky idea that these three couples are the same people at different points in their lives. Admittedly, this isn’t a piece with much narrative heft; moreover, the issues it raises are efficiently resolved. Nor are the older characters anxious to detail the horrors of growing old: The focus is mostly on the younger people, who have energy and power, rather than the older, wiser folks, who are portrayed as glum in a manner that borders on cliché. (Why does everyone old have to turn into a wisecracking Alter Kocher?)
Still, the performances are surprisingly nuanced, particularly during scenes in which characters demonstrate knowing more about each other than they choose to say. As the youthful couple, Cargill and Barker are appealingly genial and headstrong, while as the cynical elders Hyde-White and Joyal are appropriately hard-bitten and sour-faced. It’s probably best not to poke at the plot’s glaring holes, such as why the middle-aged pair can’t remember meeting the young couple back in the day, or why the oldest couple can’t recall meeting either of the others. Doctor Who episodes have a convoluted explanation for this sort of phenomenon, but Gould instead chooses to keep things breezy and un-analytical.
As the increasingly bewildered couple in midlife, Pride and Leighton are well-matched and suggest people at a turning point in their lives. It is sometimes a little difficult to buy the plot’s basic premise — frankly, as rendered, these characters occasionally seem like different people entirely. But that may be Gould’s point: If I met my 20-year-old self, we would probably not recognize each other, and you can hardly expect people to behave precisely the same way over a 60-odd year span.
Note: The show is double cast.
Secret Rose Theater, 11246 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through August 27. (323) 960-7784. Running time: 80 minutes.