The following review is based on the February 24th cast and performance of “The Marriage Zone.”
Now playing through June 2nd at the Santa Monica Playhouse, “The Marriage Zone” (a deft reference to “The Twilight Zone”) hysterically and thoughtfully examines the dynamics and happenings that characterize a marriage while adding facets relating to the ontological and existential. Executive-produced by Bruce P. McNall and Steven C. Markoff, and written/directed by the ingenious mind of Jeff Gould, who has a knack for giving intimate relationships a comedic twist, “The Marriage Zone” is not just any normal play. Rather, it offers seemingly otherworldly insights into the evolution of romantic love, including why it’s paramount to communicate, be thoroughly transparent with each other, be assertive when necessary, and sometimes be perfectly okay with circumstances that are simply “good enough.” The double-cast production skillfully navigates moments of perplexity and clarity with appropriate elicitations of laughter and empathy.
Those who’ve had the requisite experience can attest that a relationship is like a living organism of its own, fueled by decisions that carry from the past through the present, and then the future, thereby impacting outcomes, feelings, and perspectives. The pendulum can swing from happiness to sadness, and back, amid intentions that are mostly pure and good, along a journey that is very much worth living despite a less-than-ideal destination that awaits. In “The Marriage Zone,” for three couples at different stages of their relationships, these are precisely the insights that are uncannily gleaned when they serendipitously meet in the same house.
From the audience’s vantage point, it is specifically the same living room – nicely designed by set decorator Jane Lake for maximum visual immersion – which belongs to middle-aged couple Beth (René Ashton) and Cal (Matt Harrison). There’s a front door that believably leads right into the space comprised of modest furniture and even a wobbly coffee table that becomes a topic of argument for the twosome. Cal would rather be prepared for the precarious what-ifs of life by staying within his current means. But, for Beth, who is perhaps rightfully desirous of the preeminent things in life, including the best school in the best neighborhood for her son Ryan (Kody Fields), this is unacceptable and so she’s decided to test the market by putting their house on sale. This prompts the newly engaged, naive, and madly-in-love couple Skip (Ben Bergstrom) and Ellie (Britt Rose) to first enter the residence for a gander, followed by the jaded and oldest pair: Liz (Jacee Jule) and Mike (Mark Sande).
Before long, innocuous commonalities between the men – such as their love of baseball and the fact that they all suffer from occasional chest pains – become the foundation for more revelations that substantiate a surreal link between them. And for the women, a knowing glance gives way to shared realizations and hidden truths that transcend the knowable. In fact, the purpose and ultimate reason for why these couples have been joined as they have is why “The Marriage Zone” thrives as it does. Driven by Gould’s incisively witty writing (inclusive of well-placed drama) and superbly-paced directing, not to mention the seamless execution of its cast members, the show ties a profoundly lucid meaning out of its plot to offer a discerning take on the vicissitudes of marriage. It also helps that the audience, through the eyes of the play’s characters, can readily identify with the motivations — which are both humorous and heart-rending.
The performers convey and evoke a gamut of sentiments that always seem genuine and never feel forced because they occur within the natural flow of the play. As Cal and Beth, Matt Harrison and René Ashton inhabit a pairing that threatens to grow apart due to their divergent expectations about the future. While his character has ostensibly lost power and influence in his marriage, Harrison emotes an intense urgency and passion about again becoming the leader that has hitherto eluded his onstage wife. Ashton, too, is effortlessly naturalistic as a spouse who wants to grab her destiny by the horns before it runs off. However, where she really shines is in conveying her motherly love for her 15-year-old son, who is portrayed with suitable aloofness and angst by Kody Fields.
In bringing to life Skip and Ellie, Ben Bergstrom and Britt Rose share a sprightly and comic energy as the idealistic newlyweds-to-be. Their characters are still in the torrid stage of their relationship, to the extent that they’re hysterically unable to keep their hands off each other even among strangers. The two are, moreover, great at playing off each other’s intentions, hilariously delivering their lines in a manner that captures their mutual hope, despair, and the obliviousness of their youth.
For Mark Sande’s Mike and Jacee Jule’s Liz, although their best days as a couple are behind them, they both strive to get on in spite of the mistakes accrued over the years. It’s been easier for Sande’s persona, who is reminiscent of one who has finally learned to let go and no longer hold back nor defer for the sake of domestic bliss. Granted, he’s quite rough around the edges, if not completely cynical, but it bodes well for a dead-pan disposition that Sande scores for numerous laughs. On the other hand, Liz is psychologically weighed down more by past regrets, disillusioned by a life that fell well short according to her expectations. Jule gives an honest performance that exudes a taxing truth via her facial expressions alone.
In “The Marriage Zone,” the clever and astute relatability of the three couples to not just each other, but to audiences at the Santa Monica Playhouse, is a testament to Jeff Gould and a cast that has successfully realized his vision. Most productions gloss over the components that make or break relationships, but in this play, the many nuances that make up spousal satisfaction are explored through the lens of dramatic love, irony, absurdity, sheer hilarity, and can’t-miss creativity. Suffice it to say, once the mutual bond linking the couples is revealed, a wild and illuminating ride will follow.
Given that most of the roles are double-cast, audiences might also see Monica Young as Beth, Dane Bowman as Cal , Alex-Hyde-White as Mike, Leslie Stratton as Ellie, and Cameron Tagge as Skip.
“The Marriage Zone” is playing at the Santa Monica Playhouse through March 31st on Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm (February 3rd and 9th are dark). For tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3919605