Off-Broadway Theater Review: CLEVER LITTLE LIES (Westside Theatre)

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by Paul Birchall on December 16, 2015

in Theater-New York


Marlo Thomas may not have the iconic stature of one of those luminous performers like, say, Meryl Streep or Cher or Judy Garland, but akin to these illustrious ladies of culture, you can do a pretty good job of placing your generation chronologically by which version of Ms. Thomas you know best. For instance, if your memories hail back to Thomas’s turns as the perky, happy-go-lucky aspiring actress of the 1960’s That Girl series, chances are fairly good you’re now a retired hippie senior citizen, perhaps with a little grey pony tail or smock-y peasant skirt.


On the other hand, if you best recall Ms. Thomas as the Autoharp-strumming, child-entrancing wonder of Free to Be You and Me from the late 70s, well, by now you are in your 50s, working a mid-level corporate job and snarling at your own wife and kids (as, alas, this would be the inevitable outcome of the upbeat Free to Be philosophy). And, if you only know Thomas from her work as an advocate for the St. Jude Hospitals, well, that’s nice, but you wouldn’t get the full power of her personality and talent.


Joe DiPietro’s rather charming comedy seems targeted to audience members who recall Thomas from her days as That Girl, and, indeed, her performance here does coyly recall her famous TV character, albeit now a 70-something grandmother. There’s nothing wrong with this; in some respects, it’s downright reassuring. I’m not sure we’d want to see Marlo Thomas as Medea, for some reason, but seeing her crack wise and smart in a charming performance of this type – well, it’s a bit like having a reunion with an old old friend whom you haven’t seen since long ago.


That said, the play is, admittedly, so slight it almost comes across as borderline silly. Thomas plays Alice, a spry suburban New York bookstore owner and grandmother, who is quite happily married to businessman Billy (Greg Mullavey, another TV perennial (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) who manages to convey volumes of personality with just a shift of an eyebrow). At the play’s start, Bill and his 30-something son Billy are engaging in locker room chat following their weekly game of racketball, when Billy confides that he has been cheating on his adorable wife Jane (Kate Wetherhead) with the gym’s sultry 23-year old pilates instructor. Bill Sr. is suitably appalled, but as much because he doesn’t know what Alice is going to do when she finds out about it.


The next part of the play consists of Bill Sr., at home, trying desperately to prevent Alice from finding out about their son’s behavior. But he’s no match for Alice’s instant ability to tell that something is up and her skillful cunning in worming it out of him. It’s after Alice commands Billy Jr. and Jane over for an emergency dinner, the sparks truly fly as Alice uses unconventional means to keep her son’s marriage together and happy.


One is of two minds about this particular play: As a work of writing, Clever Little Lies really has very limited narrative to explore and is rather insubstantial in content and flimsy in context. There’s a lot that just seems silly: It’s  as if no one in the universe exists aside from the older couple and the younger couple; one questions just why the son would confide to having such a torrid affair to his conventional and uptight dad; and the plot turns on an unusual development that causes  the comedy’s climax, but it doesn’t spring logically from the situation itself and comes across as being decidedly clumsy.


Still, DiPietro is a writer who finds a wonderful human side to his characters, though, and there’s a warmth to the material that is really very genial. The interplay between Mullavey’s sometimes befuddled Bill Sr. and Thomas’s ferociously funny Alice, and then between the two of them and the younger couple, mildly put us in mind of one of the 1970’s sex farces by Alan Ayckbourn. And it is a pleasure to see, not just Thomas, who absorbs your attention almost simply by existing, but also familiar figures like Mullavey, who, while in a more thankless role, demonstrates effortlessly experienced comic timing.

photos by Matthew Murphy

Clever Little Lies
Westside Theatre (Upstairs), 407 West 43rd St
ends on January 3, 2016
EXTENDED to January 24, 2016
for tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit Clever Little Lies

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