by Samuel L. Leiter
Tony winner Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, which premiered two years ago at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse and was shown last summer in the Hamptons, is a clever little domestic comedy of the crisply-paced, well-made, sit-com variety that used to appear in New York almost every year. It’s about a well-off, close-knit family (mom, dad, son, and daughter-in-law with three-month-old infant in tow), takes place largely in a beautifully appointed Westchester living room, and deals with the familiar dynamics of adultery, marital secrets, and parental interference (it could easily be called Mother Knows Best, or Does She?).
It’s lovingly directed, elegantly designed, nicely cast, includes a popular star (the redoubtable Marlo Thomas), comes well stocked with zingers, makes room—perhaps a tad too much room—for pathos, and offers the kind of amusing postprandial entertainment, with a touch of seriousness, tired businessmen and their wives (or mistresses) always used to flock to. The principal difference between Clever Little Lies and what used to pack them in on Broadway is that it’s Off-Broadway, runs an intermissionless 90 minutes, and allows a shadow to fall over an otherwise happy ending. Enjoying it as I did was my guilty theatre pleasure of the week.
After Bill, Sr. (Greg Mullavey) whips his lawyer son, Bill (George Merrick, the only new cast member), at tennis, Bill is unable to repress the news that he’s having an intense affair with a hot trainer at his gym, where he’s been going obsessively to work out. Bill, Sr., promises not to tell Bill’s mother, Alice (Thomas), but knows that her nose for trouble will eventually sniff out the secret. Alice is a bookstore owner who gets off some good cracks at the expense of the Fifty Shades of Gray books and the kind of literary trivia (coffee cups and t-shirts) she has to sell.
When her antennae pick up signals of Bill’s dilemma, she slyly squeezes the truth from her husband who reveals it—hilariously—with nary a word, and then persuades her reluctant son and his wife, Jane (Kate Wetherhead), to come over for cheesecake and espresso. Bill and Alice then do all they can to prevent Jane from learning what’s up, but, just when it seems there’s no way out, Alice comes up with a tale that takes everyone by surprise, leading to other revelations about her own clever little lies and, eventually, to that shadow pervading the final moments, during which the play moves onto another emotional level. That shift to a somber tone is a bit disturbing, and it’s hard not to expect some comic twist that will return us to the earlier mood; DiPietro, however, sticks to his guns, resisting the old adage to always leave them laughing.
Thomas, charmingly youthful at 77, and looking much younger in the stylish clothing Esther Arroyo has designed for her, brings her personal warmth, perfect timing, comic smarts, and rich, female baritone to the meddling but incisive Alice. There’s a reason she’s a star. Mullavey is a comedic gem, piling up laugh after laugh with his facial and physical reactions, yet always being truthful. Merrick tends to push too much at first but gradually settles in as Bill’s rat-in-a-trap frustration takes over, and Kate Wetherhead, so delicious in The Other Josh Cohen a couple of years ago, makes Jane, who can’t stop quoting all the studies she’s read, both real and funny.
David Saint’s direction beautifully expresses the play’s comedy as well as its more sentimental moments. Yoshi Tanokura’s first-rate sets, which include a locker room as well as a cut-away car for a highway driving scene, are truly classy, using a sliding stage and sliding panels on which video projections make a strong impression, while Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting captures all the play’s shifting moods, especially at the end.
Need your own guilty theatre pleasure? You might try Clever Little Lies.
Clever Little Lies
407 West 43rd Street, NYC
Through January 3
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).