'The Cost of the Erection'

Marriages, like houses, are tough to design and even tougher to build.

Marriages, like houses, are tough to design and even tougher to build. The facade may be elegant, but if the foundation isn’t deep and the structure fortified it can all collapse. Such is the theme of the new marital blueprint play by Jon Marans (“Old Wicked Songs,” “The Temperamentals”), but the structural weaknesses of “The Cost of the Erection” are conspicuous even on quick inspection. Despite some fancy touches, the edifice at the Blank Theater just isn’t up to code.

We’re plopped down in a fabulous downtown Manhattan loft, richly and cleverly designed on a budget by Cameron Zetty. Madcap heiress Susu (Robin Riker) wants a stunning interior to match the breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty, but she doesn’t immediately turn to talent at hand, architect hubby Mark (Michael E. Knight). Instead, and for reasons of her own, she playfully announces she’ll entertain his bid along with one from up-and-coming hotshot Rod (James Louis Wagner), whose sweet wife Brenda (Kal Bennett) was a college freshman back when Susu was a dormitory R.A. Histories and hidden motives will eventually emerge, but for the moment: May the best builder win.

Scene one, in which each husband meets the other’s wife, is played for us twice so we can focus on the details of both conversations. Later encounters between pairs are simultaneously acted out, although actually occurring in different places and times. Such twisty conceits were surely inspired by Alan Ayckbourn, the Le Corbusier of this sort of theatrical trickery, and helmer Daniel Henning executes them nicely.

But the warning bells of inauthenticity start clanging early. Why has Marans made Mark and Rod architects, when the loft’s all built and they spend their time wrangling over furniture colors and fabric choices? These guys are serving as interior decorators more than anything else, which strongly suggests Marans chose architecture for its metaphorical value rather than its specifics. (And certainly as the characters start philosophizing on the marital state, beginning with the title’s Shakespearean source, Marans pushes the building-related figures of speech to the limit and beyond.)

The husbands’ aching passions aren’t much more credible than their profession; Riker and Bennett are considerably more successful at conveying the layers they’re supposed to possess.

And it’s never clear what’s at stake in the course of 90 contrived minutes of pranks and deceptions. The couples are required to confront profound relationship issues, including some questionably inserted backstories involving a past spouse and a dead child. Yet the mood is always giddy, scenes punctuated with goofy, flamboyant gestures and cascades of laughter.

With its desperate characters quaffing cocktails and shattering each other’s illusions between bursts of giddy mockery, “The Cost of the Erection” suggests a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as performed by a Gilbert & Sullivan troupe.

The Cost of the Erection

Blank Theater, Los Angeles; 53 seats; $30 top

Production

A Blank Theater presentation of a play in one act by Jon Marans. Directed by Daniel Hennings.

Creative

Sets and lighting, Cameron Zetty; costumes, Rachel Engstrom; sound, Warren Davis. Opened Feb. 11, 2012. Reviewed Feb. 12. Runs through Mar. 18. Running time: 95 MIN.

Cast

Mark - Michael E. Knight
Susu - Robin Riker
Brenda - Kal Bennett
Rod - James Louis Wagner

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