The Preservation Society

Engaged for three days, Marsha and Lewis have returned to the mountains of North Carolina, where they grew up as neighbors, to plan their wedding with Marsha's parents --"The Preservation Society" is set in their idyllic lakeside weekend house -- and Lewis' stepfather. At first, everything seems a little too hunky-dory in Wm. S. Leavengood's play, especially when we learn, very early on, that both Marsha (Nina Humphrey) and Lewis (Dierdre Lovejoy) are women. In this story, the girl next door has fallen in love with the girl next door.

With:
Cast: Laurie Kennedy (Jeanette), Nina Humphrey (Marsha), Dierdre Lovejoy (Lewis), Bryan Clark (George), Larry Pine (Howard), Kevin Geer (Richard).

Engaged for three days, Marsha and Lewis have returned to the mountains of North Carolina, where they grew up as neighbors, to plan their wedding with Marsha’s parents –“The Preservation Society” is set in their idyllic lakeside weekend house — and Lewis’ stepfather. At first, everything seems a little too hunky-dory in Wm. S. Leavengood’s play, especially when we learn, very early on, that both Marsha (Nina Humphrey) and Lewis (Dierdre Lovejoy) are women. In this story, the girl next door has fallen in love with the girl next door.

It goes almost without saying that it doesn’t take much to expose the horrors roiling just below the surface of this serene picture of familial harmony. Marsha’s parents, Howard (Larry Pine) and Jeanette (Laurie Kennedy), have anesthetized their feelings for each other with alcohol for so long that they’re only just discovering that indifference has metastasized into contempt. And Lewis (as a teen, she took her last name as her first) is still mourning her mother, a loss her weak-willed, spaced-out stepfather, George (Bryan Clark), is unable to stanch.

Still, they all maintain an air of civility until Leavengood lobs a grenade in the form of Marsha’s brother, Richard (Kevin Geer), a mealy-mouthed, gospel-spouting failure who clothes his bigotry in biblical ranting and who serves as an emotional catalyst for the others.

Leavengood is a facile writer of dialogue with a slick, cut-to-the chase sensibility that makes at least some of this well-trod territory seem fresh. This, despite the fact that “The Preservation Society” features a dizzying number of breakups and reconciliations, most of them unlikely and all of them smelling like the plot devices they are.

Some of them make no sense at all: Why would Howard object, on business grounds, to Marsha’s plan to call her catering enterprise the Gay Gourmet; for gosh sakes, they live in San Francisco. (Maybe he means it should really be called Le Lesbian Larousse.)

“The Preservation Society” does offer one very funny scene in which everyone plays a game called Celebrity and whose quick passage deftly nails each of the six characters. In fact, you don’t need the rest of this ultimately tiresome play.

But then, you wouldn’t have spent time with this priceless ensemble, especially the three grown-ups: Pine, barking and pouncing with forced bonhomie, a wealthy liberal banker weary of having his nose rubbed in his family’s rebellion (and fully capable of killing their dog by filling the toilets with antifreeze); Kennedy, revealing a loneliness matured into depression when Jeanette observes, “No men believe in equality. There are those who humor us, and those who don’t.” And, finally, Clark, who can make unbearably eloquent the simple act of staring off into space.

Humphrey plays Marsha as if on the edge of tears throughout, but she’s a completely annoying character to begin with, and no less so when she shows some spine at play’s end. Lovejoy is marvelous as the tough-seeming, fast-talking Lewis, and Geer gets Richard’s syrupy nastiness exactly right.

Indeed, you couldn’t ask for a better production, from Casey Childs’ breezy staging to Bob Phillips’ picture-perfect set, Deborah Constantine’s sunny lighting scheme and Rodney Munoz’s character-perfect costumes. They’ve all given much better than they got.

The Preservation Society

Production: NEW YORK A Primary Stages Company presentation of a play in two acts by Wm. S. Leavengood. Directed by Casey Childs.

Crew: Set, Bob Phillips; costumes, Rodney Munoz; lighting, Deborah Constantine; sound, James van Bergen; casting, Peggy Adler; production stage manager, Christine Catti; general manager, Margaret Chandler; press, Tony Origlio. Artistic director, Childs. Opened Jan. 21, 1996, at Primary Stages. Reviewed Jan. 18; 99 seats; $ 35 top. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

With: Cast: Laurie Kennedy (Jeanette), Nina Humphrey (Marsha), Dierdre Lovejoy (Lewis), Bryan Clark (George), Larry Pine (Howard), Kevin Geer (Richard).

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