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Theater LaB's A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage @ 1959 Features Lots of Bad Advice, Plenty of Fun

The setup: A satire of marital advice from a clueless "expert" tracks two very different 1959 Iowa marriages and chronicles their outcomes in this production from Theater LaB Houston.

The execution: First, yes, it is the era of big hair and the wigs, often blond. Molly Pierce plays Abby, a Doris-Day type, perky and naive, and she links up with quarterback Mason, with matching naivete and good intentions, played by Cameron Bautsch, who has the lanky good looks of a young Elvis. They both follow the unseen narrator's advice to save "it" for the wedding night. Since both are inexperienced, disaster results, and the narrator's attempt to resolve the crisis by itemizing clinical details is unappetizing and hilarious at the same time.

Pierce and Bautsch are excellent, and Abby fortunately turns to her mother for advice (the narrator suggested this) when the marriage hits a snag. I say fortunately, because Dorothy, the mother, is played by Mary Hooper, with blond hair as stiff as a nun's wimple, and she brilliantly captures the prejudices of the time: antigay, antiblack, and with an inability to distinguish between a liberal and a communist. She not only holds the stage, she owns it. Abby's sister Sheryl (Claire Anderson) is good, but Dorothy has all the lines.

In a parallel but unrelated courtship and marriage, the academically precocious Daniel (Bobby Haworth) is seduced, nay, overpowered, by Ruth (Adrian Coco Anderson), seven years older. The couples breed, and daughters are born. Abby and Mason have a failure to communicate, and Ruth and Daniel communicate too well, sparring like prizefighters. Ruth is scripted as a bitch on wheels, with no redeeming features I could spot, except perhaps for sexual talents -- until she decided withholding them as another weapon.

The unseen Narrator (Greg Dean) continues to give feckless advice rooted in a complete lack of knowledge of human nature, but with the plummy assurance of the clueless, and this is often quite amusing. Divorces ensue, but there is hope for the survivors, and it may be that the "right person" is no further away than a co-worker; I dare say no more.

There is a dark patch to the evening, as Ruth and Daniel's marriage fails, and these scenes are no laughing matter. Lightness re-emerges once through the divorce courts, and two characters entering late are wonderful: Andy Ingalls plays a gay hospital orderly, and few have portrayed "yearning" better. Shondra Marie plays an inhibited nurse using a dating service -- she pivots like an automaton, and her optimism reveals that naivete can last well past youth. Both are delightful.

Director Jimmy Phillips keeps the pace brisk and the portrayals authentic, and lets the humorous incongruities work their charms. The satire, originally presented at the New York International Fringe Festival, is by young playwright Robert Bastron. His generally deft touch overcomes the detour into Eugene O'Neill territory, as well as his over-broad delineation of Ruth as an unbridled monster and Daniel as a doormat with no self-esteem, before Daniel finds his mojo. The full evening passes far too quickly, and leaves one wanting more -- and that doesn't happen every day.

The verdict:

A humorous chronicling of two marriages breaks fresh ground with some original approaches, and pays off with shrewd insights and cascades of appreciative laughter.

The production of A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage @ 1959 continues through December 11 at Theatre LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, Houston 77007. For tickets or information, contact 713-868-7516 or www.theatrelabhouston.com.

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