Familiar Comedies 

Crossroads pulls off a competent musical romance; Act Now's '80s sendup is a stitch.

Single white theater critic, 36, seeks plays that prove that the modern day is no different from the past. Likes: tight pacing, witty dialogue, and period details. Dislikes: mushy sound, flat characters, and program notes that invoke "kinder, gentler times." Only responses with photos will be answered.

If it seems as if the current fad for online dating came out of nowhere, guess again: We've been mating through the mails for years. As proven, in not one but two period comedies currently playing in Walnut Creek, both of which center on people who have met through an ad. Denizens of modern dating and social Web sites will recognize all the first-meeting fears played out, from "Will this person be as great in person as I've built them up to be through their letters?" to "What if they turn out to be a total freak and I can't figure out how to get away?"

Two people work in the same field and hate each other. Little do they know that they've been conducting a passionate affair via the post. Sound familiar? Parfumerie was written by the Hungarian Miklós László, and then milked for all it was worth for years after. You've Got Mail is the latest version of the play, which was made into two other films in the '40s. But the most enduring version is She Loves Me, a Broadway musical that debuted in 1963, was revived thirty years later, and is now playing at Crossroads. Here we have two people working -- and competing -- in Maraczek's Parfumerie, creating tensions that ripple through the other employees.

The singing is good, and it's consistent -- not one great singer surrounded by folks gamely holding on, even if it's hard to tell whether Ilona's harsh nasality in "I Resolve" was a deliberate character choice. Susan Himes-Powers sings beautifully as Amalia, although "Will He Like Me" is lyrically dull, which is strange from the same writers who gave us Fiddler on the Roof. There's a lovely moment of three customers singing about whether they've forgotten anything, and check out the fussy waiter singing falsetto in the last chorus of "A Romantic Atmosphere."

It's totally frothy, but every now and again there's a sharp little twist to take off the sugary edge: a completely unexpected little dance number that breaks out in a restaurant after a clumsy busboy drops some silverware, the neat musical trick of Amalia's "Vanilla Ice Cream" changing both mood and tempo between verses, salesclerk Sipos' practical way of handling workplace stress by detailing how inconsequential he is.

Director Marilyn Langbehn and set designer Jean-François Revon use their small, oddly shaped space well. Revon has built a revolving set with extra pieces that nest into the wedge-shaped openings, and Langbehn's blocking is crisp and efficient. The colors are nostalgic, peach and pale green and burgundy. Overall the show is like the perfumes in Maraczek's shop: sweet, charming, and light, evaporating quickly.

Across town at the Dean Lesher, director Timothy Beagley and Act Now! Are staging a hilarious send-up of '80s and therapy culture with Beyond Therapy. Bruce cries in front of Prudence on their first meeting, something she hates in men, but it doesn't exactly go downhill from there -- it just gets weirder. "I hope I'm not too macho for you," he worries, about thirty seconds after the two have met. During the exchange of compliments, she replies, "I like your necklace. It goes with your chest hair."

The work is dated, but if you take it as a document of a time when we had terrible haircuts and were still trying to sort out the Sexual Revolution, it's hilarious in its familiarity. It's also a telling reminder of how much things have changed in our discourse around queerness. It's far less likely these days that a person will say "I hate gay people" to a perfect stranger. It is among the things that are no longer spoken aloud. So hark back to the heady days of the early '80s, where we were encouraged to let it all hang out, chest hair and all, and do our processing as publicly as possible.

It's also cool that Bruce really is bisexual, a point playwright Christopher Durang stresses in his addendum -- not gay trying to go straight, not straight and "experimenting." And he's not conflicted about it, which is very unusual in a fictional character. The problem is that he has a lover already, and they really don't have a good agreement about dating outside the relationship. Well, and Bruce is a little cracked.

Unlike She Loves Me, Beyond Therapy is most assuredly not a family show, based on language alone. But it's a stitch, the pacing is perfect, and anyone who survived the period with no more than a bad haircut will identify with the silliness.


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