By Pat Launer
“For Better” is a story about a marriage.
But the wedding is actually secondary to the fact that every one of these characters (except for one luddite holdout) is first and foremost married to their phone.
Though Eric Coble’s comedy/farce premiered in 2016, as part of the National New Play Network, it already feels dated, because technology has evolved, and people don’t talk on their phones as much as text or tweet or connect on Whatsapp, Instagram or Tumblr.
So they don’t put each other on “Hold” and accidentally say the wrong thing to the wrong person, thereby jeopardizing their marriage. (Of course, many an email has been “Sent” in error, and that probably has happened in some other social media avenues. But they’re not so loud).
At two hours, the play feels like a sitcom that’s overstayed its welcome. The points about our lack of F2F (face-to-face) connection is made in the first two minutes, then underscored, highlighted, and repeated—louder.
Karen (Kay Marion McNellen) thinks she’s in love and is ready to tie the knot. She met Max a year ago, but has only actually been in the same room with him twice. Her sister, Francine (Heidi Bridges) reads her the riot act, but hypocritically, she met her husband, Michael (Charles Peters) on a dating website. Michael is something of a salesman/slime, and it’s his wife’s best friend, Lizzie (hilarious Erica Marie Weisz) with whom he used to have a relationship, that he tells he loves—except he tells it to his wife instead.
The wildly hyper, overanxious and awkward Stuart (Kenny Bordieri), Karen’s lifelong friend, has always loved her but was too timorous to tell her. Since he’s found out that she’s getting married in two weeks, he’s been either drunk or hysterical.
Karen’s dad, Wally (Fred Harlow), the only one without a cellphone (he doesn’t even do email!) is the most grounded of all of them —in every sense of the word.
These generally unlovable, narcissistic, self-involved folks are not only not in the same room, they usually aren’t in the same city—or country—for all their disengaged interactions. Four of them have pedestrian but somehow unconventional jobs that require them to travel incessantly. We have no idea what the seeming dilettante Lizzie does for a living, if anything. She just obsesses about what color her eyes should be every day.
Wally is or was in construction, pouring concrete (that’s as grounded as it gets). A widower, he stays put on is sofa, watching old TV shows, and only has one phone line. Even the DVR scares him. Clearly a blue-collar guy, he speaks ungrammatically, though from the heart—until he reads “Email for Dummies,” sets up an account, and writes an uncharacteristically wise and articulate note to both his daughters about love, and how you know ‘the one,’ and how to relish that ‘Huh!’ moment.” It’s the most contentive monologue in the play.
The final communicative caper, in this group where no one really knows how to communicate—absolutely no one listens to anyone else—is when fiancé Max Fed-Exes the engagement ring to Karen. Oh, wait. There’s one tech moment even more impetuous than that at the end, but I won’t ruin it for you.
At Scripps Ranch Theatre, director Eric Poppick has found some clever ways to represent electronic interactions. There’s too much yelling overall, but the cast is clearly working hard and having a good time.
This is a summer season rom-com lighter than ear buds. I’d tell you more, but I have to put you on hold; I’m getting another call…
- “For Better” runs through June 24 at Scripps Ranch Theatre, in the Legler Benbough Theatre on the campus of Alliant University, 9783 Avenue of Nations.
- Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Tickets ($15-$31) are available at 858-578-7728 or online at scrippsranchtheatre.org
- Running Time: 2 hrs.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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