Counter intuitively so, this play about infidelity is a romantic night out. Bernard Slade's Broadway debut, Same Time, Next Year, is still delightful and funny on its thirty-year anniversary. Above all, the play gives wonderful snippets of American life across three decades. It offers a few affecting moments as well, though ultimately far fewer than last spring's compelling production of Honour.
The affair begins with an impulsive act of humor. From across the room, George sends a steak over to Doris, who is also dining alone. When it arrives, he toasts her from afar with a forkful of beef. She is dazzled with this carnivorous flirting. The two hit it off and hit the sheets. Surprisingly to both of them, their steamy weekend becomes a standing annual reservation. The play gives us a glimpse of six of these yearly rendezvous, spanning 25 years of their relationship.
Director Bain Boehlke offers another Jungle Theater delight. Same Time, Next Year illustrates non-traditional forms of love and devotion while it amuses with clever dialogue. Over the years we watch the intimacy between the two grow, and are privy to bits of the (normal) waxing and waning of their respective marriages. The majority of the story focuses on showing how Doris and George each change or stay the same in response to global, local, and familial changes.
When George and Doris meet in 1951, they are both married, and each has three children. They are both unlikely adulterers. But what starts as "two friendly sex partners, just touch and let go," becomes a serious commitment of its own. George values the tryst for its longevity, and the comfort and reassurance it brings, more than for its sexual gratification. "A friend of mine thinks that life is learning how to say 'yes'," he says. "I've spent most of my life getting to 'maybe.'" This bizarre arrangement is clearly grounding for George. Each year it has a rejuvenating affect on his appreciation for life, love, and duty.
Boehlke's set is wonderfully claustrophobic. We never leave the adulterous bedroom. It remains an unchanged utopia. The calendar that is updated with each scene is the sole outside influence on the love nest. Boehlke's set and direction make use of the full stage, and almost trains us to anticipate what action will come next.
But while the set stays the same, the chemistry between Thelen and Hempleman only grows over time. The two make the play funnier than it is on paper -- certainly funnier than the 1978 film of the same name (starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda). Similar to the experience of watching that old film, one finds that Slade's chosen pop culture references aren't all still valid. Everyone knows what it means to speak of Goldwater or Gloria Steinem. But many other allusions disintegrate immediately upon delivery. For example, a joke involving Butterfly McQueen might've made headway if it had been rewritten within the larger framework of Gone with the Wind, which is still valid in the generalized pop-culture repertoire.
There are only two actors in Same Time, Next Year, and the Jungle's casting is again superb. Terry Hempleman is the "George" Alan Alda might've been under another director -- playful, and with better timing. Hempleman brings us a vulnerable yet self-absorbed George who is often in his own myopic world. We love George because of these heart-breaking insecurities. He is also adorably, hilariously, paranoid.
Doris begins as an oblivious housewife with a blunt tongue and hyper-controlled emotions. Of the two, Doris grows the most over time, perhaps because she serves as a symbol for the growth of the country post WW II to post Vietnam and Watergate. She begins as a high-school drop out, a woman whose identity is entirely about her role as wife and mother. By the 1950s, a new hobby, reading, improves her diction and general knowledge base. In the early '60s, in the most ironic twist of fate in the play, she obtains her diploma. As you might expect, she later becomes a fringe-wearing hippie in the late '60s and a successful businesswoman, grandma and even political hopeful in the '70s.
It would be easy to fall into a caricature in Amelia Cheever's time-capsule-worthy costumes. But Jodee Thelen plays Doris with resounding authenticity. With subtle nuances of voice and movement, Thelen is able to carry off Doris' internal and external changes with agility and strength. Though she is emblematic of larger political and social transformations, she is still one woman, Doris, who is trying to find her place in the world. Doris makes George stronger and more stable in the world, but the reverse is also true.
Unlike last season's production of Honour, Slade's play isn't about the consequences of adultery. In fact, the play demands that audience members sustain the (perhaps distasteful) premise of "adultery as comedy." We get just an inkling of the effect the affair has on the rest of Doris and George's lives. For example, after George must make an emergency delivery, Doris names her fourth child "Georgette." However, the other 51 weeks a year are left largely to our imagination. Because of this, Same Time, Next Year cannot transcend beyond its status as a light surface comedy, though it has its moments of sweet poignancy. One key scene begins as a political debate, then turns to personal issues of loss and anger; we discover the root of George's callous indifference, and his loss of social conscience. And we discover the depth of the unconditional loyalty each has for the other.
In addition to George and Doris, there are peripheral "characters." Through George's storytelling, we fall in love with Helen, the wife we never meet. She is brave and can laugh at herself, and unlike George, is comfortable in her own skin. Unfortunately, we don't get to know Harry as well, Dorris' cuckold of a husband. We learn that he is a former World War II prisoner of war and assume his stoicism is the likely result of that fate. But Harry ends up flat in comparison to Helen. Ultimately, it is Doris and George's fidelity to learning about each other that is compelling here, and how each calls the other to the carpet when he or she believes the other is not living authentically.
"You always could see right through me," says George. "I've always loved what I've seen," says Doris.
The Jungle Theater has become the crown jewel of the Lyn-Lake neighborhood in recent years. The 2005 performance year was simply impressive. Next on the docket for The Jungle Theater is Betrayal, another play by recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Harold Pinter. Betrayal will run February 3 through March 12.
Tickets for Same Time Next Year: $22 to $32