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Friday, October 28, 2011

Theater review: You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!

Posted By on Fri, Oct 28, 2011 at 10:12 AM

You_Say_Tomato.jpg

A generation ago — or maybe three — a fairly large chunk of the audience would come into the Blumenthal Performing Arts premiere of You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up! knowing that the title is a riff on the lyric of a Gershwin Brothers song, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” written in 1937 for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers so they could elegantly bicker onscreen in Shall We Dance? On rollerskates!

Knowing those lyrics from that film and many other sources (including a rollicking Ella Fitzgerald-Louis Armstrong duet), I found myself surprised when, deep into this non-musical two-hander, Jeff and Annabelle seriously entertain the idea of calling their whole relationship off. This is after Jeff has pursued the reluctant, unromantic Annabelle for an epic six years, after the two have married and parented their darling Ezra, smack in the middle of their ten-year anniversary celebration at a posh restaurant.

Clearly, Tomato co-authors Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn are pushing the envelope in their autobiographical show. For the most part, Gurwitch and Kahn seem to be cleaving to the pop paradigm that gave us Menopause the Musical, Vagina Monologues, Girls Only, and most recently at the 2011 National Black Theatre Festival up in Winston-Salem, M.O.I.S.T. (Multiple Orgasm Initiative for Sexual Transformation). These are all light-traveling, lighthearted evenings targeted primarily at women — with business models that aspire to franchising as much as a New York run.

Not only isn’t Tomato all-women in its casting and viewpoint, the slightly nebbishy Jeff, quixotically carrying his torch for Annabelle while romantically believing their relationship is truly fated to be, is actually the more sympathetic partner in this couple. It’s Annabelle who forgets birthdays and anniversaries while Jeff is forever diligent in gifting and arranging celebrations. She even forgets Jeff after he’s nice enough to board her cat on short notice! Annabelle is the wielder of logic, convinced that relationships are random, finally calculating — after multiple failed relationships with men she drooled over — that yes, Jeff is the man she should be with.

Of course, he’s on time for their anniversary rendezvous while she’s running late.

In other words, Jeff and Annabelle are polar opposites, just like the antagonists of the Gershwin Brothers’ song — and the co-authors are mostly about capitalizing on a profusion of comical incongruities as they chronicle their relationship from the vantage point of their 10-year milestone. At times, it’s table talk with a couple of menus and glasses of water, but as the 75-minute show progresses, there are frequent re-enactments of past episodes and slices of monologues directed at the audience, breaking the fourth wall.

Of course, the prevailing contrast between husband and wife, while turning the usual mold upside-down, dovetails nicely into a classic comedy cliché: Jeff is mad for sex while Annabelle is indifferent. Fresh mirth is mined by Antoinette LaVecchia and Scott Richard Foster from this comedy club staple, yet they’re quite adept at the scene work — and injecting that dramatic let’s-call-it-off tension when it arrives. They could probably flesh out the slickness that, earlier on, sparks our laughter only to delay our emotional involvement, but the product design seems committed to a 75-minute time limit.

Laudable as Gurwitch’s willingness to be perceived as the heavy may be, it comes at the price of showing us why Jeff worships her. Like Gurwitch, who appeared at a talkback after the performance on press night, LaVecchia isn’t drop-dead gorgeous, so an element of insanity creeps into Foster’s prolonged pursuit when the reason isn’t self-evident chemistry. We shouldn’t have to dig into Gurwitch’s playbill bio after the show and paste it onto what we’ve just seen to understand those dynamics. The particulars of her attractiveness needn’t constantly flash at us, but they should be far more manifest.

Gurwitch and Kahn had much to be pleased with as they met LaVecchia and Foster for the first time ever during the onstage talkback. The script curves gracefully towards a satisfying conclusion from its key crisis, and director Darren Katz has an unerring feel for the essence of his protagonists and their conflicts. Pacing is refreshingly brisk — revving up to a frenzy just once to fine effect. With cocktail tables up front and raked seating further from the stage, Stage Door Theater, on the College Street side of the PAC, is a perfect You Say Tomato venue. Blumenthal Performing Arts is presenting this classy premiere in Charlotte, eyeing transfers to other cities down the road. It’s easy to envision this production traveling well on its sleek sturdy legs.

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