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Breaking Up

A couple breaks up, reunites, splits again, plans to get married, then doesn't ... It's the stuff of sitcoms, but Michael Cristofer's funny-sad "Breaking Up" thoughtfully and gently insinuates itself deeper than expected into the memory bank.

A couple breaks up, reunites, splits again, plans to get married, then doesn’t … It’s the stuff of sitcoms, but Michael Cristofer’s funny-sad “Breaking Up” thoughtfully and gently insinuates itself deeper than expected into the memory bank.

With a camera’s click signaling the start and finish of each scene, Cristofer depicts vignettes in the four-year process of parting for Steve (Jeffrey Hayenga) and Alice (Jane Galloway). It’s painful, then funny, then painful and funny.

Cristofer takes this little, too-common story beyond triteness with his skillful use of punchy dialogue and, even more, by tossing in some existential thoughts on the whole philosophy of relationships.

If, as Alice and Steve wonder aloud, such thinkers as Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Einstein have undermined concepts of God, morality, free will and matter itself, what’s the basis on which we bond with one another? More important, what’s the point of bonding?

Such questions, not surprisingly, get dealt with superficially and semi-facetiously, but just raising them keeps “Breaking Up” out of the teeming category of forgettable fluff.

And what they amount to is still another reason for Steve and Alice to avoid a major commitment — the dreaded “M” word.

In due course, they do try, when — after one of their many separations — Steve comes up with a heartfelt proposal something like, “We’ve spent all this pain just getting back to zero. I don’t want to go through that with anyone else. Let’s get married.”

They eventually do–but not to each other. And the play’s final scene, a meeting four years later, is redolent with what-might-have-beens. Cristofer deftly taps into smiles-and-tears recollections everyone carries about a lost love.

The roles of Steve and Alice obviously are wide-ranging–but also perilous. Going from love to hate in a click can be a problem for actor and audience, but Hayenga and Galloway — she especially — run their gamuts well.

Director Stuart Ross gives each scene the proper pace, frantic to mellow, and keeps the actors’ movements around the Carter’s in-the-round stage subtle enough to avoid distraction.

Richard Seger’s spare set centers on a bed–much like the Steve-Alice romance , actually — which revolves from one side of the stage to the opposite one as the couple shifts from his place to hers, with accompanying changes in the adjacent phones and furniture.

Michael Krass’s costumes help delineate the couple’s status and each scene’s era; Ashley York Kennedy’s lighting properly conceals and reveals; and Jeff Ladman’s sound supplements those clicks (Steve’s a photog) with apropos tunes about love in bloom and bust.

Breaking Up

Cassius Carter Theater, San Diego; 225 seats; $ 30 top

  • Production: An Old Globe Theater presentation of a one-act comedy by Michael Cristofer. Directed by Stuart Ross.
  • Crew: Sets, Richard Seger; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Ashley York Kennedy; sound, Jeff Ladman. Opened July 8, 1992; reviewed July 10.
  • Cast: Cast: Jane Galloway, Jeffrey Hayenga.
  • Music By: