It seems there are an assortment of angst-driven personalities caught in some kind of semi-purgatory waystation and must purge themselves of their emotional baggage before they are allowed to move on by an all-knowing ethnic minority service-oriented person who just might be God. No, it is not Bruce Jay Friedman’s landmark play, “Steambath,” but comedian Anne Meara’s one-acter, set in the oh-so-sophisticated environs of a Manhattan supper club, is an often hilarious, sometimes awkward pas de quatre that flings itself from high comedy to deep despair (often within the same sentence). This production is blessed with an outstanding ensemble, guided with insightful direction by David Saint, that vividly brings to life every nuance of the playwright’s text.
Meara has created a deep-rooted personality conflict between two aged showbiz-oriented couples who attend the premiere of a new Broadway play, then hash over the aesthetics of the production and the basic substance of their lives at an after-theatre high-end bistro, attended to by the omni-present waiter, Raziel (Dennison Samaroo). Actors Marty (Robert Mandan) and Terry (Marian Mercer) Guteman have been completely won over by the sentiment of the production they have just witnessed, whereas their writers-from-Hollywood friends, Phil (Paul Dooley) and Renee (Bea Arthur) Stredman, feel the play was overly manipulative. In truth, these lifelong friends have never been completely giving and open to one another as they leap at each other, always questioning the motivation behind each statement.
The playwright never decides what is more important, the joke or the message, but does manage to provide an outstanding vehicle for this ensemble that can change emotional priorities at the speed of light. Mercer’s Terry exudes the aura of an ecologically enlightened personality who cannot find the basis of passion in her own life and marriage, yet is very adept at flinging missiles of guilt at everyone else. Gazing at her lifelong friend’s fur coat, she can’t help but spewing out, “Did you know that each of those little pelts was killed with an electric rod up his rectum.”
For her part, Arthur’s Renee is magnificently armored by her wit and comic timing to combat all misfortunes. When looking at the sparring and jabbing, she deadpans, “This whole evening is turning into an extended root canal.”
Mandan’s Marty and Dooley’s Phil are perfect satellites to the energy being permeated by their wives. Mandan is the epitome of the former matinee idol overcome by his reverence for the simpler values of the past that has been unleashed by the play they have just seen. Dooley offers a wonderfully complex persona as the hard-drinking sitcom writer who can rail against all the ungrateful children in the world at one moment and offer a beautifully timed ribald joke the next.
The true heart of “After-Play” occurs, however, with the magnetic arrival of Emily (Susan Clark) and Matthew (Kenneth Ryan) Paine, two emotionally devastated friends of the Gutemans who have lost their son to AIDS. In one riveting scene, Clark is simply overwhelming as the pathetic, rage-filled mother who is desperately trying to hold on to her sanity by channeling the pain of her loss with alcohol and recrimination against anyone (including her husband) who might assuage her own sense of guilt. And Ryan is wonderfully effective as the long-suffering husband who has no defense against his wife’s unrelenting assault but to remain polite and hopefully find a way to move on in their lives.
Samaroo is the soul of understated discretion and understanding as the waiter. Completely subservient to the demands of this menagerie of insecure souls, he can command snow at will and cue just the right moment for “when the fat lady sings” to signal the exit of these two emotion-drained couples.
Adding to the overall effectiveness of this four-person duel is the wonderfully atmospheric settings of James Youmans (set) and Paulie Jenkins (lighting).