More hits than misses in Trinity’s ‘Faithful Cheaters’

From left to right: Rebecca Gibel as Poppy, Anne Scurria as Marion, Karen MacDonald as Nance, and Stephen Thorne as Theo in Deborah Salem Smith’s Faithful Cheaters, directed by Melia Bensussen at Trinity Rep.  Set design by Cristina Todesco, lighting design by Daniel J. Kotlowitz, costume design by Olivera Gajic. Photo Mark Turek.

PROVIDENCE – Comedy is hard work. With a new comedy, you probably don’t know where exactly the laughs are or aren’t until the first time an audience sees it. That can be too late.

The good news is that Deborah Salem Smith – a playwright in residence at Trinity Repertory Company – hits more often than she misses in the world premiere of her comedy “Faithful Cheaters” at the Lederer Theater Center.

Smith, it turns out, had Trinity Rep mainstay Anne Scurria in mind when she wrote the character of Marion Stevens and Director Melia Bensussen probably had both Scurria and Karen MacDonald (Nance Stevens) on speed dial the moment she saw the script. Scurria has impeccable comic timing and MacDonald, making her Trinity Rep debut, can do just about anything.

They play a longtime – that’s in 42 years together – lesbian couple who are the married mothers of Poppy Stevens (Rebecca Gibel), a doctor, and her scientist husband Theo Klein (Stephen Thorne).

Anyone who saw Gibel as Ado Annie in last spring’s “Oklahoma!” or in “Barefoot in the Park” at Trinity Rep knows she also has serious comedic chops, and she brings the requisite spark in this tale of a couple attempting to purchase and rehab a falling-down lakeside resort named Sonoma (irony intended) at the same time they’re trying to rehab and renovate their stress-filled marriage.

Set designer Christina Todesco’s rendition of Sonoma is delightfully tacky and detailed.

Smith gets “Faithful Cheaters” off to a strong start but things go off track a bit late in the first act, and the pattern repeats in Act II, when it starts strong but then again goes off track. Farce must have some grounding in reality to succeed and “Faithful Cheaters” often threatens to lose contact with earth.

The title implies what’s going on here between Poppy and Theo, but there is all manner of cheating, of course, and Theo and Poppy are cheating on each other in different ways – hers carnally and his financially, raiding the family checkbook to cover up the fact that he hasn’t been holding down his end of the bargain as a breadwinner.

The clothes hanger upon which the plot hangs is Theo’s desperate attempts to get financing that will allow him to complete research on a fidelity drug which essentially cures folks of the desire to cheat on their spouses/significant others, and gets those home fires burning again in a relationship.

Mauro Hantman is Phil, a dental hygienist who has taken over a cottage on the property as a squatter and thinks everything is “awesome.” He is a Designated Quirky Character whose mere appearance is a cue for laughter. Think the Pigeon Sisters in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” or William Sanderson and Tom Poston in the old Bob Newhart TV show

And while the character of Phil – who disdains clothing about as much as he enjoys going No. 2 in the great outdoors – works at least some of the time, Designated Quirky Character No. 2 – Charlie Thurston as “Butsy” Benini Jr., Poppy’s former flame back in her life and parading around as a crazed college mascot – really doesn’t work at all.

It may be peripheral, but there is some well-done and effective dramaturgy posted on the walls outside the theater as cast members opine on relationships, which is where the playwright wants us to focus.

“The sexiest thing is a sense of humor,” said Scurria, who has one.

MacDonald advised that a couple should have some some unusual common interest, in her case sharing with her spouse the music of Frank Zappa. Thurston recommends “investing in a good mattress.”

Director Bensussen and the cast have the needed timing down right, no small feat as doors slam and characters appear and disappear in split-second timing.

Yes, Smith does have some pithy things to say about relationships, but Job One is making you laugh. There is no comedy – especially a new comedy – where everything hits as intended, and here the gags and comedic chaos come at you machine-gun style at times. There are many laughs to be had in “Faithful Cheaters,” but there are also many haymakers that land wide of the mark.

The good news is if that one missed, you won’t have to wait long for the next one, and you might still be laughing at that one when the next one misses the mark.

The Trinity Repertory Company production of Deborah Salem Smith’s “Faithful Cheaters.” Directed by Melia Bensussen. At the the Lederer Theater Center through May 21. Trinityrep.com.

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