Baby boomers may think the cultural gap between themselves and their parents was the widest in history, but the asymptotic progression of technology, as evidenced in Eric Coble’s romantic comedy “For Better,” makes a strong and humorous case for their children — bred on email, instant messaging, cell phones and text messaging — being as remote from them as they were from their folks.
Like all successful satirists, Coble’s metier is to capture peculiar social phenomena and play them out to their logical and absurd conclusions, as he did in “The Dead Guy” (to what extremes will people go when paid by a reality TV show?) and in “Bright Ideas” (to what extreme will upwardly-mobile parents go to get their kids into the “right” school?).
In “For Better,” Coble makes hay with the effects of electronic communications on romance, intimate relationships and marriage. At the center of this dance is Karen (Lisa Rosenhagen), who spends more time talking with her fiance Max (a character who never appears on stage) via wireless media than in person.
Her software-challenged father, Wally (Jim Zeiger), can’t understand their virtual on-again, off-again engagement, while her older sister, Francine (Dee Covington), criticizes her rashness — even though she met her husband through an online dating service.
In helmer Chip Walton’s clever staging, the intricacies of overlapping calls, three-party conferencing, and concurrent IMs and emails are clarified by Michael R. Duran’s half-dozen, staggered metal frame platforms, from where the characters vocalize their electronic conversing. Cross-hatching with six characters never sounded so good and made so much sense.
Coble’s players mix sane and grounded with goofy and ditzy, while Walton stylizes the perfs within the bounds of realism to keep the issues relevant.
Rosenhagen’s Karen alternately brims with girlish effervescence and cowers in nagging self-doubt. She bridges old and new protocols, as she arranges for Max to call via cell phone to ask her father for her hand.
Zeiger radiates warmth as a widower deeply attached to his two daughters. His befuddlement with things that go beep serves as an amusing link to the pre-Internet world.
Despite the freewheeling nature of virtual culture, Francine asks her husband Michael (John Arp) to investigate Karen’s beau. Meanwhile, Michael takes solace in the electronic arms of Lizzie (Rhonda Brown), an old flame he contacts to carry out the investigation.
Arp and Brown make this rekindled chemistry sizzle via IM, leading to the play’s principal heart-to-heart, face-to-face confrontation and facilitating the story’s comedic resolution.
Arp’s consummately smarmy, silver-tongued satellite-dish-insurance salesman’s pitch is one of several sharp monologues in which Coble captures the addictive and fear-laden qualities of consumerism.
For her part, Brown finds just the right balance point to lend the illusion of sense to Lizzie’s challenging logic, her comedic knack matched by Ed Cord’s Stuart, a lost soul engineering wireless systems in the Third World who has held a torch for Karen since high school.
With few exceptions, Coble’s writing remains economic, replete with witty lines that, if not wholly cathartic, give pause over the role electronic communications play in our lives. That the characters manage to find their way back from the brink to celebrate the possibilities of love earns the production its titular recommendation.