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By John Quinn
The romantic comedy is a staple of stage, screen and television. Of course, romance isn’t all joy. A comedy is only a comedy if it has a happy ending. Getting there may be through a minefield or two. It is appropriate, then, that playwright Rich Orloff flips a military term around for the title of his new romantic comedy. “Engagement Rules” is receiving its world premiere as Detroit Repertory Theatre opens its 54th season. The themes may be familiar, but the approach is sharp, original and terribly funny.
Consider two loving couples at two different stages of romance. Donna and Tom (Kelly Komlen and Charlie Newhart) are young professionals; each are “once bitten, twice shy” in relationships. They’re cautiously moving towards an engagement. Rose and Phil (Trudy Mason and Harold Uriah Hogan), on the other hand, have been married for decades and the flame of passion has waned. Waned? After listening to Tom’s enraptured description of his “souls together” moments with Donna, Phil begins to wonder if he and Rose had a romance or just a marriage. His attempts to light the fire, fueled by a cocktail of Kama sutra, porno films and Viagra, provide a lot of the best comedy in the play.
The audience needs that humor. Tom and Donna are faced with an unplanned pregnancy while still in the learning stage of their partner’s soul. Their encounters become tense, cold lessons in logic. Their flame might be extinguished.
In the director’s chair for “Engagement Rules” is Bruce Millan, Detroit Rep’s artistic director. He’s given us a great start for the 54th season. Orloff’s play is rich in content, deep in character; Millan mines its treasures like a savvy prospector. The production is risque without being crude, crisp but not overdone. It is, in fact, one of the few times in my experience that a play is literally a “laugh a minute.” The opening audience was so appreciative that the sustained laughter threatened to drown out the next lines. Everything is just right, from “curtains up, Act I” to the most stylish curtain call I’ve seen in a while.
The ensemble is outstanding; their work gives a brilliant polish to Orloff’s well-rounded characters. The audience favorite is clearly Harold Uriah Hogan’s Phil. He has the best one-liners of the play because he is also the voice of the playwright. He allows Orloff to riff on topics as varied as the vast wasteland of television and the questionable value of organized religion. Wilde Award winner Kelly Komlen turns in a textured, sensitive portrayal in Donna.
Scenic designer Harry Wetzel can always be counted on to create an attractive, workable set, but here he’s outdone himself. The design is simple; the living room and bedroom of two apartments flank a wall unit mounted on a turntable. ‘Tis a gift to be simple – the set is so functional that, while each scene ends in a blackout (or a blue light blackout, if you want to quibble), there is no interruption in continuity. Change of scene takes mere seconds, and “Engagement Rules” glides along as if greased with graphite.
As “the days trickle down to these treasured few,” and the nights grow longer and colder, there are reliefs as spicy as apple cider with cinnamon. Consider “Engagement Rules” one of them.
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 23, plus New Year’s Eve; no show Thanksgiving. $17 in advance, $20 at the door. 313-868-1347. http://www.detroitreptheatre.com