I am not sure if American theatre needs another living-room play about rich people and their problems, but in Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies we have got one, all the same. Receiving its world premiere now at the George Street Playhouse under the direction of David Saint, the theater’s artistic director, this is a ninety-minute, one-note examination of the angst and guilt tucked not so neatly under its characters’ white collars.
The play opens in the posh locker room of a New York tennis club as Billy (Jim Stanek) and his father, Bill Sr. (Greg Mullavey) dress after their weekly match. Billy is an overworked lawyer in his late thirties or early forties, and the father of a new baby. After a sudden bout of crying, he confesses an extra-marital affair to his father, claiming to be deeply in love with his 23-year-old personal trainer with whom he has frequent adulterous sex. Feeling trapped and alone in his marriage now that his wife Jane (Kate Wetherhead) has become an obsessive mother, Billy turned to the hot young trainer as an outlet for his emotional and psychological crises of identity. Naturally he believes himself to have found love rather than fantasy, but not even Bill Sr.’s urging can make Billy recognize his mistakes.
Why Billy feels the need to confess this matter to his father is not entirely clear, but it comes with the standard disclaimer—“Don’t tell mom!”—and the standard expectation that the secret will not remain concealed for long. Billy’s mom Alice (Marlo Thomas, replete with entrance applause) extracts the information out of her husband and contrives an evening of coffee and cheesecake for the family so that she and Bill Sr. can help repair the marriage. The resulting production is full of tension, misdirection, dramatic irony, painful realizations, and dry quips. We learn that Billy is not the only member of the family to have stretched the moral bounds of polite society, and we watch as the play’s characters struggle to reconcile their lives with their desires.
The accomplished cast do well to flesh out their flatly drawn characters, and Saint’s direction is crisp and fluid. But DiPietro’s play gives them all little room for exploration. Instead, the primary task for the actors seems to be to fill types: from the distant, baby-obsessed wife who pours over parenting studies and disapproves of her husband’s frustrations, to the husband who reacts selfishly by running to another woman under the strained justification of needing a sense of happiness, to the sassy older parents who try to impose their life perspective on the younger couple. These characters are neither new nor are they a fresh take on the familiar.
Filled with contrived tension and imposed edginess (every dirty word feels out of place, like hot sauce imposing spice on bland white rice), Clever Little Lies leaves open the question of its relevance or insight. Certainly the play suggests that the struggle with temptation as a means of existential wanderlust is a universal human problem, but there is little here invoke empathy. Billy is a successful lawyer with a loving wife and new daughter: sure he has his problems like everybody else, but these particular problems smack of impulsive and shortsighted egocentrism with little room for nuance. While the play’s latter half seems designed to counter that image, the efforts only underscore Billy’s flaws.