EmptyEdgemar Center for the Arts, Santa Monica
Through Dec. 9
Picture an unhappy woman taking a relaxing "love bath" in a tubful of Swiss Miss chocolate to cheer herself up, and you'll have some idea of what -- for the most part -- sweet, rueful, new comedy filmmaker Henry Jaglom has concocted in "Always -- but Not Forever."
As it happens, the woman to her surprise is joined in the tub by her divorcing husband, a writer who can't seem to resist one last dip with his former lady love. But at this point in the play, it's clear that -- dip or no dip -- Jack (David O'Donnell) isn't going to change his mind about the divorce. Poor Dinah (Tanna Frederick), if it were up to her she'd drink the bathwater (which looks delicious) to keep the marriage afloat, but Jack's mind is made up. Or is it?
This is quintessential Jaglom territory -- the battle of the sexes carried out on a field of dissolving dreams, ambivalence, ambiguity and ironic regret -- much the same territory covered by his quirky films over the past 35 years. Frederick plays Dinah Axelrod, a woman driven to extreme lengths to keep her husband from divorcing her. Frederick, like the character she plays in "Hollywood Dreams," Jaglom's current film, believes in happy endings. Adding to her problem, Jack keeps insisting that he loves her but just can't live with her anymore -- for reasons that remain obscure the entire play.
Two other couples figure prominently in the play, each adding a distinctly different perspective on love, marriage and romance. Eddie and Lucy (an amusing Bryan Callen and sobering Kelly DeSarla) are married friends visiting for the weekend from Santa Barbara. Eddie is desperate to have a little fun after being cooped up with Lucy and the baby for the past two years. Lucy is so bonded to the baby that she has become indifferent to Eddie's needs.
The other couple is Jack's sexually liberated sister Peggy (a persuasive Samantha Sloyan) and her free-spirited boyfriend Maxwell (Brent David Fraser), a guitar-strumming, pot-smoking New Ager who drives an ice cream truck and has good humor to spare. This is an entertaining twosome, skillfully captured by both actors, though occasionally Fraser gets carried away by his own naturalism and can't be heard.
As the play unfolds, we find not surprisingly that each couple's relationship is far from perfect. There's a fair amount of love and gender philosophizing going on that Jaglom handles with wit and insight. He obviously knows these people well, knows the milieu and, as he explains in the program notes, the story originally was based on his own painful divorce -- this time told from the wife's point of view.
What is surprising, then, is that Dinah and Jack are the least interesting of the three couples. There's so much seesawing back and forth over the same fuzzy emotional territory that they can grow tiresome at times. Then, too, Dinah seems basically a child while Jack comes across as a tender-hearted cipher. As someone has noted, "me characters" often are the hardest to write, and Jaglom's difficulty at coming to grips with Jack is a good example.
Director Gary Imhoff has a good feel for Jaglom's improvisational film style, which finds its way into the play. The acting feels fresh and unscripted, full of amusing behavioral tics and nuances. Fraser is so convincing as the mercurial Maxwell that you'd swear he just floated in off the street. Frederick has a tendency to cry too easily, and her emoting could use a little downsizing to be more effective. Michael Fairman is fine as a notary who triggers the action and later as Dinah's father. Despite the problems, "Always" has some smart things to say about males and females and tends to say them entertainingly and well.
ALWAYS -- BUT NOT FOREVER
The Rainbow Theatre Company
Playwright: Henry Jaglom
Director: Gary Imhoff
Set designer: Chris Stone
Lighting designer: Edward Cha
Producer: Alexandra Guarnieri
Dinah: Tanna Frederick
Jack: David O'Donnell
Eddie: Bryan Callen
Lucy: Kelly DeSarla
Maxwell: Brent David Fraser
Peggy: Samantha Sloyan
Notary: Michael Fairman