Forest Dumped

This romantic comedy gets lost in the woods for a while before finding the right path

If playwright Stan Lachow could have seen the set that the Hollywood Playhouse was going to construct for the world premiere of Harry and Thelma in the Woods, he would have edited out the "in the woods." Walking into the small, residentially located theater, you are so assaulted by the picnic-area-at-Parrot-Jungle set design, the play's title feels redundant. Pointing out that Harry and Thelma are in the woods is like calling Shakespeare's great tragedy Romeo and Juliet in Love and in Trouble. Still Lachow had the right idea. A weed-ridden, mosquito-infested spot in the woods is an appropriate metaphor for the subject of this romantic comedy -- a failing marriage. Unfortunately "appropriate" translates too frequently to "predictable." Even with the sassy stage presence of the Carbonell Award-nominated Jessica K. Peterson and some good lines by Lachow, the play is at best mildly entertaining.

Harry (Bruce Laks) and Thelma (Peterson) have returned to the place where they first consummated their love 25 years ago. (As Thelma jokingly points out, it was an evening pregnant with possibilities, but she's the one who ended up pregnant.) Thelma has prepared a gourmet picnic lunch; Harry has prepared his declaration of independence. A writer of pet-training books, he declares he must run off with the sexy, young, and, of course, blond "Choo Choo" to finally write the great American novel that has been stewing inside him all these years.

Thelma does the most predictable thing a housewife of twenty-odd years could do: She ignores what he's saying and dishes up his lunch. A few moments later, when she realizes Harry's belly is full and he still wants to leave her, she declares, "I'm laughing on the outside and on the inside." Sassy lines such as this from Thelma, while amusing, actually are part of the show's fundamental problem: The conflict between the title characters is a clear mismatch. Harry is bookish, self-involved, yet self-doubting, while Thelma is not so bright but passionate. Will her lust for life conquer all? Of course it will. As she tells him at the beginning of the play: "That's the difference between us. Life makes me hungry and you nauseous." These characters are slightly more than stereotypes and never become incredibly complex. You can't hold up such traditional gender-defined roles and expect to engage contemporary audiences on any level but the most facile.

Jessica Peterson and Bruce Laks laugh off that first night
Jessica Peterson and Bruce Laks laugh off that first night

Another problem: Lachow imposes a late-Fifties comedy style (very physical and farcical) on characters who have a late-Eighties, new-age sensibility; not surprisingly, dissonance ensues. At one point Harry and Thelma have it out in an arm-wrestling match in which one tries to distract the other by singing offkey. Harry wins, begins to jump around triumphantly, and immediately hits his foot on a tree stump. The next few minutes involve Thelma coaxing him to let her examine his injury; when he complies, she squeezes his foot too hard, and he doubles over, howling in pain. This type of scene would have been hilarious half a century ago (as in I Love Lucyor The Dick Van Dyke Show) because the exaggerated emotionalism and blunders were set against a backdrop of civilization and petit-bourgeois restraint -- a backdrop that has long since vanished.

Probably the biggest hindrance to the success of Harry and Thelma in the Woods is the set design. Hollywood Playhouse is small enough as it is; the "big" voices and gestures of these two actors overwhelm the intimate space. More important, set designer David K. Sherman has turned the stage into the world's most bizarre, cluttered nursery. Choked with what appears to be a random selection of tropical greenery, ferns, babbling brooks, and rocks, the stage juts into the theater awkwardly. While both actors are in clear view, they are not well framed. The burgeoning flora thwarts the energy and emotion they are trying to project toward the audience. A simple grassy knoll and babbling brook would have sufficed for this production. Unless a theater has a lot of money and a larger stage, trying to replicate nature is a big mistake. The stage should display the actor's craft, not the horticulturist's.

As for the writer's craft, this show also falls somewhat short in that department. One element commonly shared by romantic comedies and tragedies is conflicting desires. All lovers, whether they are portrayed to the tune of canned laughter or a cello suite, are essentially "star-crossed" -- by circumstances, perhaps, but definitely by their immutable character traits. Unlike a stand-up act, in which an endless succession of gags will suffice, the yuks in a romantic comedy must spring from characters. Unfortunately Act One of Harry and Thelma in the Woods more closely resembles a stand-up act than good theater. The actors trade zippy one-liners and snappy comebacks, but none of these exchanges offers us much character insight. Without any emotional context, the rapid-fire patter quickly becomes tedious.

Still the verve and confidence of the seasoned Peterson keeps us from becoming completely lost in the woods in the first act. In the second act, Laks also begins to hold his own as the script provides his Harry some heft. A year has passed, and Harry and Thelma "unexpectedly" meet again in the same weedy patch of land (echoing Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year). This time a disheveled Harry has a suicide note pinned to his jacket and a shotgun in tow. A slimmer Thelma is carrying Melville's Moby Dick. Still a literary ingénue, she leans against a rock, takes a swig of white wine, and declares, "Let's see what all the fuss is about this whale." This brief glimpse of each one independent of the other prepares us to get to know them better.

In Act One these two could have been just about any unhappily married couple hitting its midlife crisis. The playwright initially confuses quirks (her off-key voice, his clumsiness) with personality traits, giving us sketchy character portraits. Act Two is more engaging because we find out more about Harry's and Thelma's real fears, desires, thoughts, and emotions. This solid if belated foundation provides the jumping-off point for more -- and better -- laughs. In one hilarious monologue, Harry explains the bloody nose that he got on the "existential tennis court" while acting out a Billie Jean King fantasy with Choo Choo. Fortunately this character-driven brand of humor predominates in the second half of the play, making the comedy much more appealing and enjoyable.

At intermission an elderly gentleman sitting next to me motioned toward the stage and said, "That's the story of my life up there -- 53 years of marriage." Another man shuffled by, squeezed his wife's shoulder, and teased her: "Who does that Thelma remind you of?" He looked at our group and added with a wink: "And to top it all off, her name is Thelma." He winked again just in case we didn't get it. It occurred to me that these theatergoers were bowled over not only by the fact that the stage imitates life but more importantly because it imitates their lives.

For the hundredth time since the show began, I ran down my mental checklist of things that distinguish art from entertainment: Art makes you think. Entertainment asks that you don't think. Art sets the visual imagination into motion. Entertainment paints the picture for you so that reaching after metaphors and making leaps of the imagination is unnecessary. I realize there's one new criterion I can add to my list that may be the definitive one: Entertainment somehow provokes you to want to wink at your fellow theatergoers during intermission. What the hell, I wink back.

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