Adultery and Its Discontents 

A mis-mismatched couple mars Playhouse West's romp about cheating on your spouse."

Infidelity, and how the other half gets away with it: that's the subject Britain's Alan Ayckbourn examines in his zany How the Other Half Loves. Fiona Foster and her husband's employee Bob Phillips have both crept home late one Wednesday night. Their respective spouses are none too pleased, as we learn Thursday morning when Frank (Fiona's none-too-bright husband) and Theresa (Bob's way-too-bright wife) begin the grilling. For their alibis, both of the guilty parties seize on the same innocent bystanders -- Bob and Frank's rather dull co-worker William Detweiller and his wife Mary -- each spinning essentially the same lie about the Detweillers' marriage being in trouble. Things swiftly go nuts for everyone involved. Frank and Theresa both invite the Detweillers over for dinner, hoping to help them get their marriage back on track and sending their own spouses (the real adulterers) into paroxysms. By the time the play reaches its climax, Theresa has walked out on Bob, William is hunting Bob with a massive wrench and a bloodlust to match, and anxiety medication-dependent Mary is finally starting to develop her own personality.

In theory, what makes this play work is the biting humor and the clever interweaving of story lines, facilitated by a set that gloms the Foster and Phillips apartments together. In performance, what makes the play work is having actors with impeccable timing who can adjust quickly to jumping back and forth between scenes (particularly the two disastrous dinner parties, which are neatly played at the same time on a cruciform table). The current production at Walnut Creek's Playhouse West does fine on that score. In practice, what doesn't work as well is some of the acting, which in places drags the action down.

Tara Blau, who played not one but two ever-suffering women in last season's Golden State at Transparent, comes roaring back as one ever-suffering but extremely feisty wronged woman. As harried new mom Theresa -- a pen behind one ear and a baby spoon behind the other -- Blau is howling, scheming, and essentially goodhearted. She's also very believable, a trait she shares with Sean J. O'Neil as her husband Bob. O'Neil evidently had to hold back in the recent Sight Unseen; here he glories in playing Bob as a complete asshole, down to his abuse of the tremulous Mary (a delicate turn from Lois Hansen). While they're totally playing into Ayckbourn's stereotype of lower-income people being lusty and loud, it's truly entertaining watching them together, especially when they fight. Which is pretty much all the time, and marked by zingers like Bob's "I see you're hanging on with grim nostalgia to this empty cornflakes box."

But the other couple, Frank and Fiona Foster, don't fare as well in the hands of Bob Lieberman and Taylor Brock. Lieberman hams the clueless Frank up so much that it's not clear whether he actually respects his character, and it's difficult to tell if Brock's tension is an extension of her character or just a manifestation of the actor's own nerves. Scenes with these two just don't seem organic. Which is mysterious in light of their combined experience, and Lieberman's brief but fine turn in Aurora's The Entertainer earlier this year. Perhaps these are directorial choices; after all, director Lois Grandi's shows tend to be acted big.nA mis-mismatched couple mars Playhouse West's romp about cheating on your spouse.

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