Blessed be the ties that bind

September 10, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Anne Meara's "After-Play" is a serious drama in which four old friends discuss the pain and hardship of parenthood, loss, sickness and growing old.

No. No. Wait. That's not it.

"After-Play" is a comedy in which two show biz couples discuss a play they've just seen, only to discover their impressions are so different, they might as well have been at two different plays.

So which is it? Well, like the couples' varied reactions, "After-Play" is a little of both. Think of it as a moving comedy -- lovely but slight.

A recent off-Broadway hit, this first produced play by half of the comedy team of Stiller and Meara is receiving its first regional theater production at Olney Theatre Center. Under the guidance of director John Going, a skilled cast makes it a poignant -- and funny -- evening.

The action begins with a metaphysical twist, stunningly interpreted by set designer James Kronzer. Peter Mendez, who plays a waiter named Raziel -- a name defined in the Encyclopedia Judaica as the Angel of Mysteries -- comes out on a bare stage, waves his arms and summons up the New York skyline, falling snow, a taxicab crash, and then the restaurant the four cab passengers enter for an after-theater dinner.

The crash has not only left them unscathed, but they talk about it as a near collision. And, because the program describes the setting as "a restaurant that appears to be a chic New York eating place, but is not," it's safe to assume Meara has set her play in a kind of limbo, a place that owes a debt to Thornton Wilder or Frank Capra.

To be released from this metaphysical eatery, the foursome must achieve an emotional awakening. Touchingly depicted at Olney, this awakening comes in the form of a reaffirmation of the friendship between the couples, who haven't seen each other for three years.

At first, the couples -- Marty and Terry, actors who've remained in New York, and Phil and Renee, writers who've gone Hollywood -- seem to be forcing themselves to be convivial, particularly when they disagree about the play they've seen. To Phil and Renee, it was manipulative shtick, but Marty and Terry found it so moving, it reduces Marty to tears.

The wives -- the strongest roles and the production's strongest performances -- are as dissimilar in manner as they are in appearance. Lauren Klein's thin, high- strung Renee is as uptight as her curly black hair. She's also as hard and cynical as Barbara Andres' buxom Terry is warm and sentimental.

The men, less fully drawn, are more conciliatory and protective than their wives -- a nice reversal of stereotypes. John LaGioia, as amiable Phil, keeps irritating his easily irritated wife by explaining her comments. And Robert Le- vine's Marty is so sweet, his wife sometimes thinks a little less niceness would add a spark to their romance.

Despite the conventional wisdom that show business marriages are brutal and short, both of these couples have solid marriages. Those bonds have been reinforced by a litany of shared woes, revealed in the course of this 90-minute evening to include everything from cancer to estranged children.

Doesn't sound like a comedy? There are plenty of laughs, although even the one-liners suit the characters. "On PBS they had a show on reincarnation," says open-minded Marty. "I gotta do this again?" quips jaded Renee.

Ultimately, the jokes -- as well as the metaphysical framing device -- are of less consequence than the connection renewed between the friends. See "After-Play" with a good friend you've lost touch with for a while and, by all means, discuss it afterward.

'After-Play'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Sundays and selected Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sept. 19; through Oct. 6

Tickets: $23-$28

Call: (301) 924-3400

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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