Winner of a 1999 McLaren Award for comedy playwriting, stand-up comic Jake Feinberg's new play Strictly Personal told the tale of two recent divorcees, Dan and Lori, who live right right next door to each other in the same building on Riverside Drive. Naturally, they do not know each other, and naturally, they eventually meet through the personal ads in New York magazine. The various trials and tribulations each of them go through before they "ring those bells" made up the bulk of the evening.
With references to cybersex, E-mail, condoms, and other '90s phenomena peppered throughout the script, Strictly Personal tried to be a winning, up- to-the-minute New York romance, but at heart it was a boulevard comedy reminiscent of those long-running evergreens from the '60s and early '70s. Featuring a group of tiresome New York stereotypes trading neuroses, the jokes came thick and fast, skewering everything from blonde bimbos, homosexuality, and new age religion to that grand New York institution, the meddlesome Jewish mother. Although the audience laughed heartily on cue, the writing was little more than a series of inter-connected comedy sketches that went for an easy punchline instead of strong dramatic reasoning or resolution. And the revelations in the second act, piling up as thick and fast as the jokes, were telegraphed throughout the first act, vitiating any sense of tension or surprise.
Director Barbara Quintero kept the evening moving at a brisk pace with a brash, sitcom style. Ken Dashow, who looked older than the character's stated age, played Dan with a dogged gusto, but Rachel Bones, looking far too young to have been married for 13 years, gave a flat, one-dimensional reading of Lori. Standouts in the cast included Jeff Snider, in a sensitive performance
as Dan's overweight friend Freddie (another target for Feinberg's misanthropic humor), and in dual roles, the gorgeous, wry Angie Joachim, used well as Darlene, a self-satisfied married friend of Lori's, and wasted in the underwritten role of Mike, a poker buddy of Dan's. The perfunctory lighting and costumes were the work of Deborah Constantine and Sally Vrba, respectively. Murray Ritter's set, while attractive, bore less resemblance to the side-by-side pre-war Upper West Side apartments it was supposed to be than to the modern white, cookie-cutter boxes that dominate Manhattan's upper east side.
With sharper, more insightful writing, Strictly Personal might have had something very funny to say about relationships at the end of the millennium. As it was, this production was a harmless trifle - not awful, but not what it could have been, either.
(Also featuring Julianne Carpenter, Kimberly Farrell, David Koppel, and Sharon Schiller)
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita