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Carefree Theatre Company's Charming Cheaters at Phoenix Center for the Arts

The setup: Cheaters' short Broadway run in 1978 put then 22-year-old playwright Michael Jacobs in the record books as the youngest documented author to open a show on the Great White Way. Jacobs went on to run a couple of the most popular TV shows of the following decade: Charles in Charge and My Two Dads, the latter of which, because you weren't born yet and it hasn't shown in reruns since the beginning of this century, starred a pre-Mad About You Paul Reiser, a post-BJ and the Bear (BJ and what?) Greg Evigan, and a you're-kidding-really? pre-The Wonder Years Giovanni Ribisi, then going by "Vonni."

Richards also produced Boy Meets World and the Oscar-nominated Quiz Show. But before all that, he cranked out this Neil Simon-influenced cheesy romantic comedy about long-married couples and their cohabiting children. It's very rarely produced, and fledgling Carefree Theatre Company gives it a sweet-but-peppy, time-capsuled treatment that can really grow on you -- it's the best-handled sex farce I've seen in years.

See also: Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys from Arizona Theatre Company: Tap-Dancing Toward the Tar Pit Actors Theatre's The Fox on the Fairway: Goofy, Good-Natured, and Loud (in More Ways Than One) Onstage in Tucson: Ayckbourn Farce Taking Steps at Live Theatre Workshop

The execution: Company founder Robert G. Bledsoe has corralled a grip of the best local talents in several production elements, including legendary set designer Thom Gilseth and costumer Renee Brown (Side Show). The result is a show that's effortless to watch, enabling audiences to focus on the script and performances and enjoy a bunch of great '70s touches, including R&B jams on the pre-show and scene-change soundtrack of Alan Penny's sound design.

In this world of telephones with dials, widely available canned TaB, ubiquitous pantyhose, and giant lapels, people still coupled young, and folks under 25 were relentlessly barraged to move on from "going steady" to "getting married," especially if they'd plateaued at "living together," which was not considered at all stable -- frequently not even by the people living together. It was confusing, though, because the throes of the sexual revolution were just beginning to reveal that marriages of two, three, or more decades weren't as blissful as they appeared on the surface, and nothing freaks out a young adult faster than the discovery of hypocrisy.

Later still, we all learned that the spontaneity of shacking up was mostly the spontaneity of being with a new person, and that everyone, married or not, gets a lot more boring and stodgy after a few years. This mellow epiphany has saved a lot of relationships and entirely wrecked others. Who knows what we'll learn next? As one of the characters in Cheaters observes, humans just live too dang long nowadays.

And that's one of the strong points of Richards' script -- that observation is drunkenly made by Monica (Toni Jourdan), a long-term adulterous wife, who seems superficial when we meet her. However ham-handedly the unpeeling of her personality's layers is accomplished (and the prop designer who sent her off the set with a margarita glass and a water pitcher to binge-slam gin Martinis is as culpable as the author, who forced her to down several truth-shots before she could acknowledge her romantic side), the complexity is at least revealed, something that never happens in some light comedies.

 

Carefree Theatre Company's production of The Dining Room, 2012
Carefree Theatre Company's production of The Dining Room, 2012
Carefree Theatre Company

Bledsoe himself bravely plays Monica's lover, Howard, as a right bastard. He's saddled with wife Grace (Kathleen Cameron, strikingly reminiscent of a young Joyce Van Patten in Eight Is Enough), who, despite being the world's sweetest lady ever, has just, faced with Howard's routine absence, spent a single sweet night with Sam (Bruce Laks) the second man she's ever had sex with. Ever. As in 26+ years ever. Horrified, Sam asked for confirmation that he's really only "number two," and Grace replies, "I hope that means you'll try harder."

Normally, old people would laugh it up on that line, and I would have to explain to you that "We're number two. We try harder," was the slogan of Avis Rent-a-Car starting in 1962, an ultramodern Mad Ave stroke of genius at the time. Did you know that Avis did not retire "We Try Harder" until last year? No one does. And sadly, at Sunday's matinee tailor-made for people who remember the 1970s like yesterday, fewer than ten seats were filled.

This made it hard to tell whether director Richard Powers Hardt and his cast had deliberately underplayed what were some weird and complex jokes in the play's first few scenes (not all of them involving dated vocabulary). Had the laughs been there, the moments might not have seemed so subtle and bland, and as the cast forged a relationship with their mini-audience, the humor appeared to become more organic and fun for everybody.

Writers typically put their strongest stuff in Act I -- not that they like to acknowledge having weaker stuff -- but in this production, the surprises of Act II build nicely on the lifelike chain of exposition (which, refreshingly, is about character much more than plot) from the opening scenes, making everything that happens after intermission feel like a reward. A team of stagehands has to completely change the location of the action after every scene, for a set in which everyone has the same walls and sofa, and it frankly just takes forever and makes your time in your seat perceptibly far too long. There's almost no way around this minus a costly turntable in the stage floor, though, and as I said, the music is really good.

The performances are all technically strong and fairly genuine, and not only is the ensemble emotionally engaged, my companion noted that even the early string of two-person scenes is captivatingly physical, using the space and the bodies in it to advantage as well as setting the tone for what's to come when everything starts to ridiculously collide. Cameron was my favorite, and Laks kills as her knight who suddenly can't remember how to remove his own pants and shoes when he's jittery with boner stress.

The verdict: Get off your butt and show this show some love. Carefree Theatre Co. is working hard to bring us well-crafted, interesting plays, and the troupe can't go on forever without selling tickets.

Cheaters continues tonight through Sunday, June 16 (fun Father's Day idea!), at Phoenix Center for the Arts at 1202 North Third Street (Third and Moreland). Did you even know there's been a theater there since dirt was new? And it's a municipal building with good air conditioning, too. Tickets are $21 and $26; order them here or call 480-442-9304. Follow Jackalope Ranch on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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