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Game, Set, Match!

Mixed Doubles explores the dynamics of marriage

Photo: Greggory S. Schraven, License: N/A

Greggory S. Schraven

Katherine Lyons in Mixed Doubles


Mixed Doubles

By Eight Playwrights

Directed by Marc Horwitz

Through Jan. 13 at Performance Workshop Theatre

Mixed Doubles, the new show at the Performance Workshop Theatre, consists of eight scenes by eight different British playwrights, and yet, it’s not as diffuse and disconnected as that summary might suggest. For one thing, the scenes are not excerpts but rather self-contained pieces commissioned from Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn, Fay Weldon, and others for a London show that debuted in 1969. Each writer was given the assignment of writing a two-person scene depicting marriage at a particular stage, from the newlyweds in James Saunders’ “A Man’s Best Friend,” through the restless adulterers in Alun Owen’s “Norma,” to the elderly couple in David Campton’s “Resting Place.”

There’s no pretense that the characters in each scene are the same people as those in the scene before or the one after, but the similarity of the dyadic dialogues in the minimalist settings and the progression of stages in any longtime relationship give the show a real unity. That unity is reinforced by director Marc Horwitz and his four-member cast, who use accurate accents, understated delivery, and an acrobatic walking atop the fence between comedy and tragedy to make this a much smarter, much deeper version of Same Time Next Year.

The show begins with Michael Donlan and Britt Olsen-Ecker as newlyweds facing each other on a train taking them from their wedding reception to their honeymoon hotel. They are discussing how important it is not to let annoying habits spoil their romance, but the more they discuss it, the more of those habits they discover and the more annoyed they become. The two performers amplify the script’s humor by adding some physical humor of their own. The man—buttoned up tight in a dark, three-piece suit—is clearly nervous about sex, while the woman, wearing a polka-dot dress with a raised hem and a plunging collar, obviously can’t wait. As she starts rubbing his thighs with her shoeless feet, the tension becomes very funny indeed.

The same two actors play the couples in Lyndon Brooks’ “Score,” which supplies the tennis-pun title for the entire show, and in “Norma.” The two characters in the latter scene are married, but not to each other. The woman talks on and on about her husband in the most matter-of-fact voice that drives her lover increasingly crazy. He wants to be romantic and dramatic, but in her implacable cheerfulness, Olsen-Ecker deflates him again and again. Owen, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, demonstrates a similarly sly humor here.

Pinter’s contribution, “Night,” concerns two long-married people who are trying to remember the night they first met, but they can’t agree on the details and each accuses the other of confusing that night with other trysts with other lovers. It’s a typical Pinter suggestion that the truth is probably unknowable, but performers Katherine Lyons and Tony Colavito make the existential philosophy go down more easily by doing the scene in expensive dressing gowns and jaded sophistication, as if they were playing Noel Coward. Lyons teams up with Donlan for Weldon’s “Permanence,” another midlife crisis, this time involving two academics on a camping trip.

In the original London show, Ayckbourn’s “Countdown” was performed by a man and a woman, but Horwitz has cleverly recast the scene for two gay men (Donlan and Colavito) who have been living together so long that they’ve come to dread every stale joke and every tired bit of gossip at the dinner table. The two partners talk in asides to the audience more than they talk to each other, and it’s a treat to see the gifted Donlan, who was so naive as the newlywed and so ardent as the adulterer, turn so bitchily cynical in this scene.

The evening’s darkest moment comes in John Bowen’s “Silver Wedding,” which begins with Lyons sitting at home in a sparkling-black spaghetti-strap gown and diamond tiara, fuming because her husband hasn’t shown up for their 25th wedding-anniversary dinner. When Colavito finally bursts through the doors, sputtering excuses about a late meeting at work, Lyons clenches her jaw, suppresses her anger, and tells him to call the restaurant and change the reservation. Instead of taking advantage of his reprieve, the dumb husband keeps trying to justify himself until both spouses unload every angry resentment they’ve ever had. A charming antidote is the final scene, Campton’s “Resting Place,” which features Lyons and Colavito again as an aging, working-class couple who have stopped to rest in a cemetery on their way home from shopping.

In the London show, George Melly delivered a satirical monologue before and after each scene; instrumental interludes by classical cellist Tim Anderson perform the same unifying function in the new Baltimore version. It all hangs together surprisingly well, thanks to the sharp, economical writing and the consistency of tone established by Horwitz. It’s surprising not to see him in a lead role at a Performance Workshop Theatre production, but his absence allows us to better appreciate Lyons, Donlan, and Colavito—who were all in the theater’s Breaking the Code this fall—and to discover the promising newcomer Olsen-Ecker.

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