By Martin F. Kohn
Joe White is the womanizing, prevaricating, self-centered, commitment-phobic protagonist of Ben Andron’s comedy “White’s Lies,” and I can just hear my attorney friends going “Please don’t make him be a lawyer, please don’t make him be a lawyer, please don’t make him be a lawyer.”
Too late for that. And besides, my attorney friends are likely to tell me jokes like this: How many lawyers, my pal George, an attorney in Atlanta, asked a couple of days ago, does it take to shingle a roof? Answer: It depends on how thinly you slice them.
Playwright Andron lays it on pretty thick in “White’s Lies,” which is something like a French romantic farce with 35 percent less door-slamming. Think of it as “Boeing-Boeing” lite. Well, a play may not be a complex disquisition on the human condition, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of devotion. Director Travis W. Walter and his Meadow Brook Theatre cohorts have a clear affection and genuine flair for this sort of thing; Joe White may be afraid of commitment, but Walter and company are definitely not.
The story kicks into gear thusly: Joe (Ron Williams) has a new woman every night and can’t be bothered to remember their names. Enter his mother (Henrietta Hermelin), who announces that she is terminally ill and would love to have a grandchild before she dies. Enter Barbara (Sarab Kamoo), an old girlfriend from college, and her grown daughter Michelle (Katie Hardy), who isn’t Joe’s but it gives him an idea…
What could possibly go wrong?
For Joe, a lot. For the production, very little.
While Andron has written more than a few laugh lines, “White’s Lies” is literally a situation comedy: Its comedy arises from its situations, a challenge that Walter’s cast meets at full throttle. Not to give Joe an even more inflated ego, but Williams is the axis around which everything spins. (Speaking of which, a turntable figures prominently. More on that later.) Joe faces a varied comedic onslaught with aplomb; he cracks but never crumbles.
Tobin Hissong is a fine foil as Joe’s law partner, Alan, decent, diffident and admiring of Joe’s success with women. Kamoo channels the smoldering rage of the thrice-married woman into some dandy explosions. Hermelin is the mother you’re happy to see but glad she’s not yours, sharp-tongued, foul-mouthed and focused on what she wants.
Hardy turns in what may be the most enduring performance as daughter Michelle, her line readings dry, droll and feeling like zingers even when they’re not. Emily Rose and Peter C. Prouty do yeoman’s (and yeowoman’s) work as so many different characters it’s hard to believe only two actors play them all. And keep your eye on James Busam and Claire Kaiser as a couple at a bar who have no lines but tell a story all their own.
Now, about that turntable. “White’s Lies” takes place in two locations: White’s office and a nearby bar, both beautifully rendered by scenic designer Brian Kessler and lighting designer Reid G. Johnson. The two sets are on a turntable, and the running gag is that the bar keeps changing its theme, going from hipster to dive to varying nationalities. The changes are so good – Corey Globke’s costumes contribute greatly – that they ultimately cause more excitement than the plot or dialogue. As the turntable rotates to reveal each new motif, a wave of laughter sweeps across the audience from left to right.
It may not be what the playwright intended, but nobody’s complaining.
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Rd., Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through Feb. 3. $31-$40. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com