April 5, 2004



New start for cheating hearts


by Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


His characters may cheat, but playwright Michael Weller doesn't.


In depicting the one-night stand of two middle-aged adulterers with a past and, just possibly, a future in "What the Night Is For," Weller does due diligence, constructing the sort of gentle but sturdy two-hander that effaces its fine craftsmanship as it hums along.


They're married, but not to each other, to quote the sage Barbara Mandrell.


We meet architect Adam (Kip Gilman) and teacher Melinda (Claudia Christian) mid-reminiscence, catching up rather self-consciously after a decade apart, over dinner--a room service meal in her hotel room, complete with champagne flutes.


This can lead to only one thing, of course, but not before these former lovers tease out some telling details and, in the well-observed give-and-take at which Weller excels, pointedly peel away the politesse before peeling off their business clothes.


"Is the goofy gift for old times' sake?" Adam asks about a collapsing plastic cow she gives him as a coy invitation to tip her, too. "Or is it more a present-tense kind of deal?"


"Yes," she replies with gathering confidence.


It's here that Christian's performance as Melinda--affectionately, "Lindy"--begins to emerge as the sultry star turn that it is, with invitingly dusky shades that recall Kathleen Turner in full feline predator mode.


This formidable feminine grit, composed of equal parts tempest and tundra, is Lindy's only defense against taking her life personally, least of all the failure of her marriage to an unfeeling Midwestern businessman.


Naturally this facade is built only to crumble, in a second-act scene that veers close to Tennessee Williams' ZIP Code.


Here Christian's rueful faded-belle routine seems especially apt; she could be Maggie the Cat after a few years with Brick and a few days without her meds.


In a reversal that pegs Weller as a writer formed by the 1970s, it is Adam who's the more touchy-feely, sensitive partner.


He's the first one to call Lindy's bluff and demand more from the relationship, while she resists, though there is more reversal and resistance in store.


This is the kind of play in which characters call each other out with the sure-fire challenge, "What are you so afraid of?"


Though, true to the genre, Gilman ultimately gives in to Alan Alda-esque special pleading--that unmistakable gesticulating nerviness that says, "Now I'm really telling you how I feel"--he otherwise gives a sly, searching performance, squinting as if to peer through Lindy's defenses, equivocating with authentic ambivalence.


Director Richard Stein masterfully guides his performers through the stop-start, yes-but rhythms of Weller's dialogue, in Laguna Playhouse's handsome American premiere production. (The show's original London run in 2002 is best known as TV star Gillian Anderson's West End debut.)


Designer Dwight Richard Odle's hotel room walls look like crumpled sheets rendered in papier-mache; behind this realistic set looms a wall of Louise Nevelson-style assemblages, perhaps meant to evoke the New York provenance of the couple's original affair.


Like this portentous set piece, it's the past that overtakes "What the Night Is For." As in Weller's signature works, "Moon Children" and "Loose Ends," which bookended the '70s with pulse-taking portraits of the era's morphing mores, he dramatizes our fear of the zero-sum game: This choice means not that choice, this road travels ever further from that door.


And if there's a certain romantic wish fulfillment in the notion of middle-aged paramours struggling back to a door they thought they'd slammed shut years before, to his credit Weller remains both sympathetic to his lovers' emotional confusion and clear-eyed about their blind spots, which not even passion and goodwill can patch.


"I'm in the wrong life," Adam says at one point--a recognizable lament, not a soluble problem.


At its best, "What the Night Is For" brings to mind David Hare's "Skylight," another after-hours accounting of an infidelity's aftershocks that has a quality of inevitability and emotional danger and which manages to conjure the rough, unforgiving world outside.


Finally, though, Weller's even-handed, even-tempered play feels as confined to this one room, and this one night, as this affair is likely to be.




'What the Night Is For'


Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach


When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 2.


Cost: $45 to $52


Running time: 2 hours


Contact: (949) 497-2787