Karen has just gotten engaged to Max. She's met him face-to-face only once, but they've conducted a three-month relationship via cell-phone conversations, text and Instant Messaging. Everyone in Karen's small circle — sister Francine, brother-in-law Michael, old friend Stuart (who's secretly in love with her) and Francine's best friend, Lizzie — communicates (or miscommunicates) in the same way. No one is ever in the same room with anyone else. The exception is dear old Dad, who's just as much in thrall to technology as the rest, but hasn't gotten past the glued-to-the-television-screen-for-Kojak-reruns phase.
The idea that electronic communication affects our relationships in profound and unpredictable ways isn't new, and playwright Eric Coble doesn't add anything to the debate in For Better. (Just once, I'd love to hear a writer admit that these new forms of communication are pretty terrific. How many of us have been able to find childhood friends and teachers we'd thought lost forever — not to mention exotic fruits, out-of-print books and arcane bits of information — through the magic of the Internet?) Still, he's crafted some wonderfully farcical scenes, in which his characters perform like sections of a wildly drunken choir or like the bobbing objects in a fairground shooting gallery, yelling at each other, repeating themselves, misspeaking, misunderstanding — or understanding far too well. In one scene, three of the main characters, all corporate types given to focus-grouping and advertising-speak, give overlapping presentations; they're all highly agitated, and their real feelings keep leaking through their artificial speeches, creating an insane contrapuntal music.
When the playwright tries to get serious, though, he falters, and the results are some boringly pedestrian stretches. You expect the characters in farce to be two-dimensional, and Karen and her hangers-on certainly are. But by the last few scenes, when Coble seems to want us to feel for these people, things get cloying. Francine and Michael are much more amusing when he's telling her "You are not the most ant-free picnic, you know," than when they're coyly feeding each other bits of cookie. And it's hard to give a damn whether Karen marries Stuart or the always-absent Max.
A bad play can make a good actor look terrible; conversely, a terrific actor can enliven a so-so piece of writing. The scenes that work best here — aside from the intricately timed group set pieces, which the cast performs brilliantly — are those featuring John Arp as Michael. Arp clearly understands that it's on-stage death when an actor playing comedy thinks of himself as funny or consciously tries for laughs. The humor of his acting lies in the gulf between the beleaguered character's crazed and irrational actions and his desperate efforts to bring them under control: The more Michael's world caves in on him, the more sincere and befuddled he becomes, and the funnier things get. Rhonda Brown's Lizzie is funny, too, because she's so full of spirited life. Francine is the sanest member of the group — smart, sardonic, mean-spirited but tenderhearted (I must say, I like her a lot more when that tender heart is under wraps) — and Dee Covington plays the role with an effective irony that undercuts the zaniness flying around her. Jim Zeiger is a sad-sack dad, a kind of marshmallow Archie Bunker; he does well enough with the emotional stuff to almost make it work. I'd like to see Lisa Rosenhagen's Karen calm down a bit, and Ed Cord is way too twitchy as Stuart.
This is the third of Coble's plays to be produced by Curious Theatre Company, which likes to create long-term relationships with playwrights. The first, Bright Ideas, satirized the lengths to which yuppie parents would go to get their children into the right kindergarten. Although that theme, too, was not new, the play was very entertaining, in part because of the unforgettable performance of Ethelyn Friend as a nasty mommy, murdered by a rival with poisoned pesto; to this day, I can see the actress's green-smeared face rising from the plate. But The Dead Guy, a spoof on reality television mounted a year or two later, was just annoyingly obvious. Nothing about For Better requires much thought, though it's all amusing enough — especially, I imagine, after a couple of glasses of wine. Still, I wonder if Coble really has the stuff to justify Curious's faith in him.
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