Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Love, Sex and the IRS, Georgetown Palace Theatre, January 9 - February 1

Actor/author Billy Van Zandt and his writing partner Jane Milmore banged out this comedy in 1979, backstage on the set of the first Star Trek movie. They took the principal roles in the debut performance at a dinner theatre in upper New York state. As Van Zandt tells it on their website, they were totally unprepared for the success of the piece or for the request from drama publishers Samuel French not only to publish that script, but their (unplanned) "next two, as well." To date, Van Zandt and Milmore have written 23 plays together and have enjoyed successful careers in television production.

In the 30 years since its opening,
according to Van Zandt, Love, Sex and the IRS has played at 10,000 theatres, mostly in the United States but also in Japan, Brazil, Germany, Canada, England, France and Spain.

Not because it is new or original. In fact, Love, Sex and the IRS fits as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle piece into the long tradition of the European music hall farce. Late 19th century and early 20th century French vaudevillian playwrights such as Labiche and Feydeau were even more prolific than Van Zandt and Milmore, constructing comedies featuring jack-in-the-box plots with disguises, sexy girls, blustering husbands and frantic ballets of slamming doors, comic grotesques, faints, revelations and happy endings. (Austin Playhouse will do Feydeau's classic A Flea in Her Ear in March). British pantomime ("panto") is a similar "low opera" tradition, often featuring cross-dressing and bawdy jokes; the "panto" tradition remains very strong today in popular British theatre, particularly at Christmastime.

In Love, Sex and the IRS, Leslie is desperately in love with his roommate's fiancée. Before he can deal with this dilemma, roommate Jon informs him that both roommates are in big trouble: the IRS is coming to audit them. Jon reveals that he has been filing tax returns for them as a married couple, taking advantage of the sexual ambiguity of Leslie's name. The only solution, according to Jon: Leslie must dress as a woman, long enough to convince the IRS inspector. At about this time, in comes landlord/building super Mr. Jansen, a low-class heavyweight who admonishes Leslie that absolutely no women are allowed in the apartment; then IRS inspector Floyd Spinner shows up two hours early. And on, and on, piling one farcical complication on another. Oh, and Jon's mother Mrs. Trachtman arrives unannounced, uninitiated in the deceptions, and with her own set of comic demands, misunderstandings, and vulnerabilities. You get the idea -- lots of fast talk, foolish authority figures, misdirection, hiding, comic drinking, and yearning frustrations.

The piece is pretty solidly set in New York City in the late 1970's, and the Palace production team did a good job of evoking that era with director Matt Gauck's set design. In this conventional box set, anchored by a sofa at center stage, a lava lamp bubbles hot pink at stage left, posters of Marilyn Monroe and the Three Stooges grace walls on either side, and a painted view of tenements is visible out the bay window at deep stage center. Costumes by Mary Ellen Butler include Jon's bellbottoms with American flag flares and, for the IRS guy, a pinstripe suit that is a good joke all by itself. Most of those in the audience at the Georgetown Palace are of an age to catch the nuances, including that one joke about Richard Nixon.

I enjoyed frequent chuckles at this nonsense, but overall, it just didn't work for me. I've spent some time puzzling about that, particularly since every other piece I've seen at the Palace has left me fully satisfied.

Director Matt Gauk kept his actors in swift, calculated motion, as is always necessary in this kind of mechanism -- the action must move fast, so the audience doesn't stop to question the plot. For example, one contention is that the IRS is investigating because in his earliest tax returns Leslie checked the box for "male" instead of "female." Leslie stammers a funny explanation and gets a laugh. But say, do you recall ever having to state your sex on the 1040?

The broadly comic figures in Love, Sex and the IRS are very well realized, in good vaudeville tradition. They are unabashed stereotypes. For example, Jon's mother is opinionated, emphatic, progressively more tipsy, and completely naive. In that role, Nikki Borra (right) has a fine presence and set of comic mannerisms. She is the center of attention whenever she has something to say or do, even if she is just passing out on the couch. Keith Swallow (left) as IRS agent Floyd Spinner gives us a man who is cautious, considered, and exact -- he reminded me strongly of a real IRS agent I knew while posted overseas, a man who with great precision could tell extremely funny stories of his early years in the service, including the time a farmer chased him off the property with a shotgun. Swallow never falsifies the man's basic reticence and prissiness as the IRS man loosens up, looks for friendship, reveals himself and becomes a co-conspirator.

Big Dana Barnes (right) personifies to the life a New York super, with a great moment when he comes down the stairs carrying Leslie's girlfriend Connie over his shoulder -- and as Connie, Lacey Rowe is loud, brassy, exuberant and funny.

Even Russ Jernigan, in the mostly silent walk-on role of Arnold Grunion, justice of the peace found on the subway by Mom, gave us a vividly funny portrait of an official who is completely unflappable.

On the other hand, roommates Leslie (Travis Chapman, left) and Jon (AJ Callaway, right) appeared to me too young for their roles. It was difficult to pretend they had been sharing an apartment for five years. Essential to the clowning of this piece is the incongruity of seeing a man obliged, against his better judgment, to masquerade as a woman; in order for this to work most effectively, one needs an actor older and more robust than the slim Travis Chapman, who is a senior in high school. Chapman plays the role with good will and timing, but he is disadvantaged by the fact that other comic figures are so much more broadly and emphatically portrayed.

AJ Callaway as roommate Jon also appeared young for the role, and I had a hard time imagining him out of Texas into 1970's Manhattan.

Jennifer Bryant as girlfriend Kate (center) played the obligatory Barbie role with confidence and humor.

Also puzzling was the fact that the production staff had equipped the players, or at least the principal players, with obvious, visible portable microphones of the sort used for musical comedy singers. The Palace is not a large theatre, and any of these actors could project up to the balcony and beyond. The mics flapping around faces added one additional element that disturbed the suspension of disbelief.

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