Dubbed "The Neil Simon of Lincoln Avenue," Chicago playwright James Sherman is best known for romantic comedies (Beau Jest) and explorations of contemporary Jewish experience (The God of Isaac). His Romance in D straddles both genres in occasionally hilarious ways, though the plot is rather formulaic: He meets her, they form a relationship, her father meets his mother, they form a relationship. Shake and bake.
Clearly Spotlight Theatre has upgraded its production values, and that's exciting to see. In four seasons, the company has moved from barely there sets to this show, which features perhaps the most ambitious set seen to date at the Soulard Theatre: two apartments sprawled across the far wall of the auditorium. Designer John Armstrong delineates the different abodes, one of which features warm wood tones and cozy furnishings, the other shades of avocado and institutionally pale green, furnished only with boxes and a card table. Joyce Nowak's costumes help clearly define characters, and John Taylor's lights clarify the action.
But while the play is slickly designed, both Sherman's writing and the actors' scene work are inconsistent. Each set of characters is ploddingly introduced. A repetitious scene that reveals the characters of Isabel Fox (an engaging Charlotte Dougherty) and her concerned father (Bill Bannister) provides crucial information (she's fighting depression and suicidal tendencies) but continues long past its usefulness. Next we meet Charles Norton (Tim Schall), a loner musicologist, and his alternately babying and bullying mother (Sally Eaton). Again the characters and their situations (she wants him to get married, he wants to be left alone) are pretty clear right away, which leaves the audience twiddling their thumbs waiting for the Romance to begin.
Once Sherman actually has Charles and Isabel interact, the play becomes more interesting. Dougherty and Schall play their quirky characters believably, bringing out unexpected moments of humor: Dougherty squirting Hershey's chocolate syrup directly into her mouth, Schall's loving creation of the perfect lox-and-bagel combination. More problematic is Sherman's writing of the romance between their parents. In yet another overwritten scene, the initial meeting between the parents devolves into a recitation of life stories that even a beginning playwriting student would see as awkwardly overt exposition. Bannister and Eaton have nice chemistry, and while it's fun to see an "older" couple explore romance, it would have been even more fun if Sherman had given them as many clever lines as he provides for Charles and Isabel.
Playwrights love to create overlapping scenes, where characters in two different settings are having conversations that intertwine aurally, creating a musical or rhythmic effect. Actors usually hate such scenes, because they're more about timing than about a natural flow of conversation. In this production, Sherman's overlapping scene with the men in one apartment and the women in the other stopped the action cold, as the actors seemed confused about who was supposed to be speaking next. If Sherman cared more about moving the action forward and less about verbal gymnastics, his play would benefit greatly.
The ultimate revelation of Charles' affection for Isabel brings an unexpected twist and is finely acted by Schall and Dougherty. But just as the viewer gets revved up to finally see how the romance will proceed, the show ends. The ending is so abrupt that the audience was confused about whether the play was actually over.
Spotlight Theatre is running its shows for three weekends this season. As this production matures, perhaps the rough spots will get smoother. A little fine-tuning might resolve some of the dissonant chords and create a more consistent harmony between all the elements of this production.