Split Personality

Tom Prior and Joanne Bonasso flirt with wide eyes and enameled smiles.
Bruce Bennett

Romance/Romance is typical of the holiday fare Stages Repertory Theatre puts on this time every year: safe, inoffensive and thus appropriate for both extended family outings and office party shindigs. Keith Herrmann and Barry Harman's Tony-nominated bit of fluff brings to life the flighty flirtations of two very different couples in separate one-act musicals.

Act I, or "The Little Comedy," is based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler about a courtesan and her wealthy lover who meet one warm and blowy afternoon in 19th-century Vienna. Alfred Von Wilmers (Tom Prior) is ever so bored with all the women he has acquired. Seems they want him only for his money. Dressed in his brown velvet smoking jacket and sipping on a fat highball of dark whiskey, he writes multiple letters to a faraway friend complaining (in song) about all the wanton carousing he's forced to endure at the hands of his well-meaning drinking buddies.

On the other side of Thom Guthrie's peacock-colored set sits Josefine Weninger (Joanne Bonasso) in her girlish boudoir. Dressed in lavender pantaloons and corset, with her dressing gown billowing behind her in great folds of gossamer silk, she too is all in a flummox about her disastrous relationships. The man she's been seeing for nearly two years has dumped her, but what's really got her knickers in a twist is the fact that she can't seem to find real love. Like Alfred, she is busily writing letters (in song) to faraway friends about the sorry state of her slender love life.



Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway

Through December 30; 713-527-0123. $32-$42

Independently, Alfred and Josefine hatch the silliest idea. She dresses up as a lowly, sweet-faced milliner, while he dons the rustic garb of a poor poet. Both go walking in the park one Sunday, hoping to meet someone who will like them for who they are inside, rather than for their hoity-toity outsides. Of course, it's all just a game, which they sing about in "Oh, What a Performance!" Still, once they've met, they manage to fall just a little bit in love despite the fact that none of what they know is real.

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The humor of all this dramatic irony wears very thin after the first half-hour. And the actors, who express every emotion with wide eyes, exaggerated gestures and enameled smiles, often come off as wind-up toys rather than grown-up characters. Director Chesley Krohn, who also directs the EarlyStages Children's Theatre, has put together a tight production, but this first act lacks any of the nuance or adult-sized naughtiness that might make this antiquated story relevant.

Much better is the second act, called "Summer Share" and based on Jules Renard's "Pain de Menage." We are fast-forwarded to the present-day Hamptons, where two thoroughly modern American couples (played by the same actors from the first act) are spending their summer vacation time-sharing a beach house. All the action takes place over the course of one early morning, when night owls Sam (Prior) and Monica (Bonasso) discover their mutual attraction, despite the fact that their spouses are sleeping in the next room.

As 2 a.m. approaches, Sam and Monica eat ice cream, sip wine and discuss such taboo subjects as affairs, fidelity and finally their burning feelings for each other. In a strange theatrical sleight of hand, the sleeping husband and wife, Lenny and Barb, played by Jonathan McVay and Jennie Welch, wander out from the bedrooms to watch over and comment (in song) on this long conversation. Odd as this might sound, Barb and Lenny, dressed in ghostly white and skirting the stage, add dimension to the tale. But the goofiest number of the production also comes from these two when they sing "My Love for You." Hobbling out with white hair and bent backs, Lenny and Barb have suddenly aged 40 years, but that doesn't stop them from literally kicking up their heels and dancing with their walkers while they croon of their undying loyalty to Monica and Sam, who are busy macking on each other in the living room.

The most moving moment of the production comes from Tom Prior's "Words He Doesn't Say." Prior's warm and golden voice is perfectly suited to this darkly seductive tune, and he ignites the stage with the sort of sultry romance this squeaky-clean production needs more of.

Bonasso, who has a lovely voice but is typically too wide-eyed and virginal on stage, also relaxes into an easy, even provocative sexiness during the second act. And a comfortable chemistry sparks between Bonasso and Prior as they snake toward each other for their inevitable and surprisingly smoldering kiss.

Likewise, Krohn's direction is also more truthful and emotionally limber once she arrives in the present day. Even the dance numbers, which she choreographed, fit more organically into the story. Bonasso appears to be having the time of her life in a dance for Monica and Sam.

But as seasonal offerings go, Romance/ Romance is a mixed bag of goodies -- one half filled with sweet confection, the other half filled with coal.

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