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Apartment 3A

As a playwright, actor Jeff Daniels has insidiously mastered the breezy one-liners and manipulative coincidences that make romantic comedy possible. Sometimes, of course, that formula can be delightful, but in plays like Daniels' "Apartment 3A," the familiar sheen of a crowd-pleaser masks a far less satisfying core.

Cast:
Annie Wilson - Amy Landecker Dal - Jonathan Teague Cook Donald - Joseph Collins Elliot - Arian Moayed Tony - J. Austin Eyer

As a playwright, actor Jeff Daniels has insidiously mastered the breezy one-liners and manipulative coincidences that make romantic comedy possible. Sometimes, of course, that formula can be delightful, but in plays like Daniels’ “Apartment 3A,” the familiar sheen of a crowd-pleaser masks a far less satisfying core. Even though the play’s filled with superficially pleasant words, the deeper actions of this joyless little comedy are anything but funny.

To its credit, the production team does what it can to keep things brisk. Director Valentina Fratti shows a knack for staging farce, maintaining a rapid-fire pace and crafting a quirky physical vocabulary for the various encounters between Annie (Amy Landecker), a Lonely Girl who works for a public broadcasting station, and her two love interests.

We quickly see the difference between Annie’s attraction for Donald (Joseph Collins), her ultra-charming neighbor, and Elliot (Arian Moayed), her fawning young assistant. Fratti gives the Donald scenes a fluid, spontaneous energy as the impossibly cheery man storms through Annie’s house, cooking eggs, pouring wine and teaching her to waltz. Meanwhile, Annie — a familiar ball-buster — enjoys the upper hand with Elliot, so their scenes have the sardonic bite of an old newsroom caper.

If Daniels had been content to remain superficial, that might be enough. Landecker, who also appeared in 2004’s “Bug,” is a subtly effective thesp, and she adds depth to her obvious role as the working gal who drops her guard and opens herself to love. The script even throws her some “quirks,” like a penchant for saying inappropriate things on PBS fund-raising telethons, which Landecker plays with a light, natural touch.

Left to these stock devices, the production could be pleasantly distracting as Annie chose a suitor.

But, no. Daniels has also made his play about faith (we know, because the dictionary entry for “faith” is in the program notes). Somewhere in the fizzy romance, he adds bits about God, religion and whether Annie believes in either. Replete with misgivings, Annie becomes more than the comic heroine: She also becomes the symbol for what’s dysfunctional in the play’s universe.

There’s no question that Annie’s “wrong” to have doubts about her heart and her soul. She is the only character even remotely touched by them. Donald and Elliot both spout the party line from the beginning, insisting that faith is essential for happiness. It’s unclear whether the men are referring to faith in God or in love, but one gets the impression that Daniels means both at once. God and romance appear to be synonyms here.

Or, more specifically, God and sex. Because the central expression of tenderness comes when Elliot finally beds Annie, literally giving her 20 orgasms in one day. With utter sincerity, Elliot calls his sexual prowess “a miracle,” and the play is designed to prove he’s right. Annie gets laid, and suddenly she’s on the road to fulfillment.

That development would be frustrating enough if it were a surprise, but the script is so obviously crafted that we see Annie’s fate from the beginning. For one thing, Donald and Elliot are woefully flat. They never change their opinion of what makes a good life — romance, love, prayer, etc. — and they repeat their mantra so often that it becomes oppressive.

Annie’s contradictory attitudes are obviously just roadblocks, waiting to be knocked over. The play’s central action is the slow erosion of her resistance until she fully accepts a worldview ordained by two men who seem like different characters but actually represent the same ideal.

And thanks to a late revelation about one character’s true identity, it’s even suggested that God Himself supports Annie’s capitulation to the joy of multiple orgasms-as-faith. This, we’re told, is the ultimate in romance.

But a world that mandates relationships and then defines them in inflexible terms isn’t really romantic. It’s tyrannical.

Apartment 3A

ArcLight Theater; 92 seats; $15 top

Production: A Lisa Dozier and Traci Klainer presentation, in association with M2 and ALL Prods., of a play in two acts by Jeff Daniels. Directed by Valentina Fratti. Choreography, Rachel Bress.

Creative: Set, Lauren Helpern; costumes, David Newell; lights, Klainer; sound and original music, Jeremy J. Lee; production stage manager, Jennifer Calesky George. Opened Jan. 23, 2006. Reviewed Jan. 22. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: Annie Wilson - Amy Landecker Dal - Jonathan Teague Cook Donald - Joseph Collins Elliot - Arian Moayed Tony - J. Austin Eyer

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