Carefree Theatre Company's Charming Cheaters at Phoenix Center for the Arts
The setup: Cheaters' short Broadway run in 1978 put then 22-year-old playwright Michael Jacobs in the record books as the youngest documented author to open a show on the Great White Way. Jacobs went on to run a couple of the most popular TV shows of the following decade: Charles in Charge and My Two Dads, the latter of which, because you weren't born yet and it hasn't shown in reruns since the beginning of this century, starred a pre-Mad About You Paul Reiser, a post-BJ and the Bear (BJ and what?) Greg Evigan, and a you're-kidding-really? pre-The Wonder Years Giovanni Ribisi, then going by "Vonni."
Phil Soto From left, Bruce Laks, Toni Jourdan, Austin Kiehle, Gabrielle Van Buren, Robert G. Bledsoe, and Kathleen Cameron star in Cheaters.
Richards also produced Boy Meets World and the Oscar-nominated Quiz Show. But before all that, he cranked out this Neil Simon-influenced cheesy romantic comedy about long-married couples and their cohabiting children. It's very rarely produced, and fledgling Carefree Theatre Company gives it a sweet-but-peppy, time-capsuled treatment that can really grow on you -- it's the best-handled sex farce I've seen in years.
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The execution: Company founder Robert G. Bledsoe has corralled a grip of the best local talents in several production elements, including legendary set designer Thom Gilseth and costumer Renee Brown (Side Show). The result is a show that's effortless to watch, enabling audiences to focus on the script and performances and enjoy a bunch of great '70s touches, including R&B jams on the pre-show and scene-change soundtrack of Alan Penny's sound design.
In this world of telephones with dials, widely available canned TaB, ubiquitous pantyhose, and giant lapels, people still coupled young, and folks under 25 were relentlessly barraged to move on from "going steady" to "getting married," especially if they'd plateaued at "living together," which was not considered at all stable -- frequently not even by the people living together. It was confusing, though, because the throes of the sexual revolution were just beginning to reveal that marriages of two, three, or more decades weren't as blissful as they appeared on the surface, and nothing freaks out a young adult faster than the discovery of hypocrisy.
Later still, we all learned that the spontaneity of shacking up was mostly the spontaneity of being with a new person, and that everyone, married or not, gets a lot more boring and stodgy after a few years. This mellow epiphany has saved a lot of relationships and entirely wrecked others. Who knows what we'll learn next? As one of the characters in Cheaters observes, humans just live too dang long nowadays.
And that's one of the strong points of Richards' script -- that observation is drunkenly made by Monica (Toni Jourdan), a long-term adulterous wife, who seems superficial when we meet her. However ham-handedly the unpeeling of her personality's layers is accomplished (and the prop designer who sent her off the set with a margarita glass and a water pitcher to binge-slam gin Martinis is as culpable as the author, who forced her to down several truth-shots before she could acknowledge her romantic side), the complexity is at least revealed, something that never happens in some light comedies.