As the distaff half of the comedy team Stiller & Meara, Anne Meara has been writing and performing shtick for so long that it’s no surprise her playwriting debut would feature about 80 minutes of setups and punchlines, sprinkled with a few stabs at seriousness.
The thrust and parry of two long-separated showbiz couples during an after-theater dinner reflects the polish and the predictability of an actor writing for actors: Within seconds of their arrival at a trendy New York restaurant, the characters’ gloves come off and the venom is flying, and it almost never lets up despite the protestations of mutual love heard at regular intervals.
“This whole evening is turning into an extended root canal,” says Renee (Barbara Barrie), the bitterest of the foursome, and brother, has she got it right.
Even the dramatis personae is a giveaway. Manhattanites Marty (Merwin Goldsmith) and Terry (Rue McClanahan) Guteman are woozy liberals who just can’t get over how moving the play was. But their old friends Phil (Larry Keith) and Renee Shredman, in from L.A., can’t help but, you guessed it, shred the play to pieces by praising the playwright’s skill in manipulating the emotions of slobbering sentimentalists like the good Gutemans.
Look a little further down the cast of characters and you’ll note a third couple, Emily (Rochelle Oliver) and Mathew (John C. Vennema), who join the action late; their marriage shows little hope of surviving the recent death of a grown son with AIDS, and their name is Paine.
From Marty’s bad back to Renee’s barbed ripostes, Meara deftly rolls out gag after gag as if she were coining them — and we were hearing them — for the first time. Of course Jewish Renee was the lusty one when she shared a Village apartment with Terry, the product of “toxic nuns.” Of course Terry will confide to Renee that nice as Marty is, “I need some fantasy Neanderthal who’ll treat me like –“”Dirt,” the knowing Renee replies.
Perhaps there’s a generational thing here, but despite all this heart-on-the-sleeve baring of souls among the one-liners, “After-Play” never amounts to anything more than what might be called alter kocker theater. Even the intrusion of the suffering Paines merely opens the gates for soap operatics on their part and some gay-bashing on Phil’s.
In the evening’s one truly poignant exchange, Terry apologizes for the Paines to Raziel (Lance Reddick), an unflappable waiter with a few metaphysical tricks up his sleeve. “No problem,” he says. “It happens all the time.””All the time?” the amazed Terry asks. “More and more,” Raziel soberly responds.
Meara couldn’t have asked for a better team to mark her debut. David Saint’s staging is unflagging and unfettered, his septet of actors a first-class ensemble. Among them, Barrie and McClanahan deserve singling out — the former for the world-weariness that neatly, if just barely, undercuts Renee’s snappy nastiness; the latter for adding just the dash of smugness that the gooey Terry deserves.
James Youmans’ stylish, airy set is closer to a penthouse out of “The Thin Man” than a Manhattan restaurant, a feeling reinforced by Don Holder’s dreamy lighting. As always, Jane Greenwood’s costumes look exactly like what these people would be wearing if we ran into them on the street. But even these serve the author’s purpose: Renee’s full-length fur coat, for example, seems to have been brought on solely to provoke Terry. It’s that kind of play, whose characters are merely buttons, waiting to be pushed. And pushed.