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THE FUNNY FACES OF LOVE

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One of the new theater troupes to pop up this season, the Jester Theater Company is dedicated to comedy. Its first production, A Tuna Christmas, was a seasonal success full of over-the-top Texas characters.

The cast is much smaller for the Jester's second outing, Romantic Comedy, written by Bernard Slade, whose Same Time, Next Year was a hit on stage and an Oscar-winning film starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. Lesser known is Slade's Romantic Comedy (made into a film in 1983 with Dudley Moore and Mary Steenburgen), which tracks the 14-year career relationship between an egotistical and successful N.Y.C. playwright, Jason Carmichael, and his fresh-from-a-Vermont-classroom writing partner/protégé, Phoebe Craddock.

As the story begins, jaded theater veteran Jason (Steve Hurst) has been dumped by his longtime writing partner on the very same day that he is to marry a sophisticated society woman. Phoebe (Robyn Pedretti), confusing her scheduled appointment date, stumbles a week early into the pre-wedding activities, only to seal a business deal with Jason minutes before he takes his other binding oath. Thus, a love triangle is drawn that will take a total of three acts to whittle down into an honest equation. Actually, that's three acts with approximately three scene changes each, all taking place in the confinement of Jason's work studio.

Slade is as gifted in creating simple, believable dialogue between people in relationships as he is in his understanding of the different manifestations of love. In Romantic Comedy, Slade uses the passage of time to allow Jason and Phoebe to figure out what exactly they mean to each other, even as Jason and his wife have children and the whole group of them become a functional family. Just when we think they've figured out who's really in love, there's another complicating factor and we're not so sure anymore. Timing is everything for these seemingly star-crossed soul mates.

Timing is everything in comedy, too, and director Jay Hopkins (formerly of SAK Theater) knows how to make people laugh. The infectious energy he nurtures in Pedretti, recently transplanted from Los Angeles, and the rest of the cast, is a delight. A talented comedienne, Pedretti captures the essence of Phoebe's odd mix of geeky naiveté and worldly wit and works with the nuances of those traits as she matures. The actress is fresh and a pleasure to watch. Like most of the rest of the actors in this show, Pedretti works at an area attraction and has film and TV experience, and there was a tendency to overplay at the expensive of believability. Actually, it was only during the last part of the second act and into the third that Pedretti seemed to lose the emotional connection with her character. The motions were all there, but the heart of Phoebe wasn't beating as strongly as Pedretti had accomplished in the opening salvos.

In the role of Jason, Hurst – who could be a brother to Simon Cowell of American Idol (sans the British accent) – looks handsome and carries around his arrogance like a suit of armor. But it is only when Pedretti is on stage with him that his character shows some spark. Anitra Pritchard, as Jason's all-knowing, tough agent, also works a similar charm. Elizabeth Bradshaw, as the secure and patient wife, completes the plausibility of such an enduring triangle.

The upside of the show's two-and-a-half hour length is that the audience buys an evening's worth of solid entertainment for $15. The downside is the seats, which become hard and uncomfortable by curtain call. Make use of the two intermissions to stretch your legs and get some fresh air, because sometimes, even when the acting is pleasing, love stinks.

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