Apparently Garry Marshall and Neil Simon were twins separated at birth. Each plumbs the vicissitudes of relationships with a like-minded comic sensibility and an exaggerated appreciation of the absurd. They are two of the best comedic dramatists writing today. Which Garry Marshall proves once again with the West Coast Premiere of “Everybody Say ‘Cheese!’”
This farcical play is set in 1965 in a cheesy apartment in the Bronx, where “perfect housewife” Harriet Keenan (DeeDee Rescher) has suddenly been caught up in the undertow of the women’s movement. Restlessly, she pursues the few options open to her: a canasta club, a possible affair (!), or meditation. (Even though she oms well, she worries that her third eye is off center.)
Her husband Leo (Joe Regalbuto), meanwhile, is bemused by her emotional struggle. He can’t understand why she didn’t cut up his banana for him when she prepared breakfast, and he is enraged when she prepares to use “his” newspaper (he is a truck dispatcher for the New York Daily News) to line the bottom of the cage of their bird, Murray. Unable to conceive of dealing with the world outside their seedy apartment, he spends his spare time building shelves, which fill, in multiple layers, every wall in the house. More shelves than even she can fill with tchotchkes.
Inevitably, Harriet decides she wants a divorce. At 50, she tells him, “I’m ready to live and you’re ready to die …” Which drives him out of the apartment to try to calm down. Not to take a walk around the block, but to ride up and down in the elevator.
She is determined, however. She has already contacted a lawyer, Artie Hazeltine (Joel Johnstone), who has informed her that the only grounds for divorce in the state of New York at that time is adultery. Not to be dissuaded, she agrees to his sending over a “professional” who will coax Leo into a compromising position so that he (Artie) can rush in and snatch a photograph of them. (On this occasion, will everybody say “Cheese”?)
Hurt and angry, Leo disappears into the bedroom to “dress for the occasion” and returns in a top hat and tails. When Harriet suggests that this isn’t exactly the appropriate clothing for an illicit rendezvous in his own living room, he responds defiantly, “This is what I wore for my wedding, and this is what I’ll wear for my divorce!”
Enter Roberta Valderrama as Lee Lynn, the hooker, who immediately becomes the hilarious center of the action. Her intimate conversation with Harriet, her matter-of-fact approach to Leo, and her sweet urgency to get home to her kid, exudes warmth and wit and wisdom.
Words of wisdom are also supplied by John Capodice as Charlie Walsh, the lonesome neighbor who talks about why it isn’t a good idea for an old widower to live with his married children. And a temporary diversion is supplied by daughter Karen (Valderrama again) and her dopey, tongue-tied husband Barry (Cyrus Alexander).
Heather Corwin rounds out the cast as Gail, the other Keenan daughter, who serves as narrator to introduce the plot and bring it to its final conclusion.
Though Marshall’s script lags a bit from time to time, director Steve Zuckerman keeps his cast moving through one of the ugliest rooms ever seen on stage. It’s a masterpiece of screamingly bad taste — green wallpaper of birds and bamboo stalks, a faded blue area rug, and all those damn mismatched shelves! Keith Mitchell should win an award for designing it.
“Everybody Say ‘Cheese!’” will run Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through April 11 at the Falcon Theatre, which was founded and built by Garry Marshall, at 4252 Riverside Dr. in Burbank. Call (818) 955-8101 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.