By Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Michael Montel
78th Street Theatre Lab / 236 West 78th Street/ (212) 873-9050

Reviewed by David Spencer

There's a reason for the following story being told, beyond the obvious. Let me tell it first:

I tried to farm this review out to colleagues, but my New York compatriots were unavailable; and a new play by Jeffrey Sweet seemed too important not to cover. Jeff, however, is a friend. Not yet a close friend, but nonetheless a good friend and a respected colleague, who has even penned a share of columns for this 'zine. I knew I could observe the play objectively, without undue bias–but I didn't know if I'd be able to write about it honestly and not feel as if I was somehow kicking Jeff in the ass...even though, as a critic himself, he knows the rules of engagement; or, in this case, the rules of limited engagement.

I figured he'd be in attendance at the 78th Street Lab (where the play is receiving a production of unusually high octane, personnel-wise, for an off-off Broadway showcase)–and I was right, he was. He came to chat with me and my companion for a bit (it's a tiny theatre; he couldn't have missed us), and after some obligatory conversation starters, I said to him: "Here's the deal. If I like this thing–really like it–I'll upload a review. If I don't like it, or have strong reservations...I'm gonna bag the deal and we'll just speak on the phone in private. Sound fair?"

I actually thought Jeff was displeased as he squinted in consideration. But he surprised me by saying, "Not only is it fair, it's damned generous." Well, I didn't know about that. But at least we had our understanding.

The fact that you're reading these words makes much of my opinion self-evident. I not only like "With and Without" his new 100 minute play in one act and four scenes: I think it's one of the strongest plays to open this season.

But the reason I tell you the story is because "With and Without" is, in part, about the deals you strike with your friends–and your lovers–in order to sustain relationships. The press release synopsizes the story pretty well, so I'll just excerpt:

"[The play] tells what happens when two couples rent a summer house for a week and onluy one half of those couples show up. Jill (Kit Flanagan) waits for her husband Russ to arrive and join their friends, a couple named Shelly (Mia Dillon) and Mark (Reed Birney). But Russ doesn't show, and Shelley and Mark sense that what was supposed to be a relaxing time is going to be devoted to trying to cope with their friend's panic..." The press release synopsis goes further, but I'm loathe to give away too much more of the game. I'll only add two things: the first, which we learn early on, is that in the distant past, Jill and Mark were a couple...and that a fourth character does arrive, but it's not Russ, and he's played by Erol K. C. Landis.

The game I'm not giving away is an awfully subtle one that leads to a totally unforeseen–yet almost poetic–irony. Though the play is solidly craftsmanlike, it is never schematic, and it isn't until the whole thing has unfolded that you understand Sweet's master plan. Until those final moments the play seems to exist in a kind of near-verité, as if it isn't constructed at all, in which four terribly interesting characters share perspectives and philosophies about life with each other. What keeps the play from being sheer verité (or faux verité of the Mamet variety) is the theatrical complexity of the characters, their quick articulacy. Which is not to say they are dry. For while sometimes they hide behind language, language is just as likely to strip them bare. One of the great joys of the play is how thoroughly each of the characters look into each other's and their own souls...clichés are not allowed, the easy reflexive stance does not appear unchallenged, and the level of wit remains not only high...but appropriate to the moment. This may seem like overstatement, but I don't intend it as hyperbole: there's a sense in which Sweet has written a modern, urban equivalent of a Shavian dialectic. "With and Without" may very well be "Misalliance" for the coming millennium, minus the Dickensian coincidences and high-comic absurdities.

Under the assured and precise direction of Michael Montel, each of the four performances is first rate. Though given the cast, that's hardly surprising. Who sharper for a meticulously intellectual fellow who seems to watch his actions from a distance than Reed Birney; and who warmer for his understanding and somewhat more generous wife than Mia Dillon? Ms. Flanagan and Mr. Landis, though not exactly news to me have never been seen to more flattering advantage, and in future one might say: who edgier for the troubled, spurned wife than the intensely funny former. And who more charming for...the mystery man...than the trust-inspiring latter?

Aside from being genuinely, humanly funny and always engaging, "With and Without", rare these days for such a play, is completely satisfying. And it takes you on a journey of enormous consequence, for a play about such small moments. My companion enthusiastically called it "relevant" and "topical"...which I suppose it is, due to its contemporary patois...but I rather thought it was timeless. And I think it will play as well decades from now. The years will tell...but for the moment its universality is pretty damn convincing.

When I was leaving the theatre, I paused in front of Jeff to say, "Okay, you win." My companion added, "Manhattan Theatre Club should be doing this play! This is exactly their specialty."

With the bemused smile of an experienced pro, Jeff nodded his thanks and said, "I would have thought so too. But they declined to agree."

Their loss...

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