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Review: ‘American Epics’ And ‘Clever Little Lies’
by Jerome Weeks 12 Feb 2016
clever little - bill Jenkins and linda Leonard

Reading minds: Bill Jenkins can’t keep any secrets from his wife, played by Linda Leonard, in ‘Clever Little Lies.’ Photos:  Tim Long.

There’s a new off-Broadway comedy about marriage getting its Texas premiere at Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre. It’s called ‘Clever Little Lies’ and it’s been compared to classics by Neil Simon. Jerome Weeks sat down with Justin Martin to explain why Simon’s plays became the gold standard for domestic comedies — and just how clever ‘Clever Little Lies’ may or may not be.

Justin: Circle Theatre just opened its 35th season with the Texas premiere of the hit comedy, ‘Clever Little Lies’ by Joe DiPietro. It was a hit off-Broadway. So what’s it about?

JW‘Clever Little Lies’ is a comedy about marriage, both old and young, both existing in tension between personal needs and mutual trust. Such a stage depiction of marriage is hardly revelatory, but ‘Clever Little Lies’ provides a wider, binocular perspective by having two couples: a pair of middle-aged parents and their son and his wife, who’ve just had a baby. The young guy tells his father he’s thinking of leaving his wife. He’s completely torn up about it, but now he’s burdened Dad with this secret. And Dad’s not good at keeping secrets from his wife. Sure enough, Mom figures out something’s wrong, maybe sexually, with the young couple. Mom insists she’s just trying to help but she does enjoy meddling.

‘Clever Little Lies’ runs at Circle Theatre through March 5th. ‘American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood’ runs at the Amon Carter through May 1st.

Here she is, played by Linda Leonard, grilling her daughter-in-law Jane, played by Kelsey Melbourn.

Alice: You know you can tell me anything
Jane: No, Alice, there are certain things I can’t.
Alice: Like what?!
Jane: Like what I do with your son in the ah ….
Alice: Oh, you do DO something with him?
Jane: Oh, well, you know, we did just have a baby.
Alice: And that’s when the trouble starts! I have been there.
Jane: You’ve been where?
Alice: A new baby, a busy husband, your body going to hell.

That’s typical of DiPietro’s skills as a comic writer. The humor lies less in joke-jokes and more in the tension, the back-and-forth that builds to that last, blithely insensitive remark.

And the Circle production is expertly done when it comes to such character interplay. Director Stephen Pounders has guided a crackerjack cast with a sure hand, not only Leonard and Melbourn (who’s going to hear she looks like a younger version of Olivia Wilde a lot) but also Bill Jenkins and Jake Buchanan as the two husbands. They’re all comfortable with each other (Jenkins and Leonard are a real-life couple) and they all interact with a kind of crisp smoothness. A special note needs to be made of Jenkins’ open-mouthed horror when his son Billy reveals what’s troubling him. He’s at once appalled, sad, fearful and irked, and Jenkins’ face is like the ‘mask of tragedy’ turned into the mask of comedy. It’s a great bit of completely silent, physical comedy.

So the show — as a Circle effort — is just a smart job all around.

Clever little - bill jenkins, jake buchanan, kelsey milbourn and Linda leonard

One big happy headache: Bill Jenkins, Jake Buchanan, Kelsey Milbourn and Linda Leonard in ‘Clever Little Lies.’

Now, ‘Clever Little Lies’ has repeatedly been compared to Neil Simon’s comedies. You’ll have to explain because I admit I’ve never seen a Neil Simon comedy.

JWSome listeners may find that incredible — Simon has been such a cultural foundation — but you’re hardly alone these days. From the ‘60s through the ‘90s, Simon became the single most successful Broadway playwright –ever. But his cultural presence has undergone a generational change. Simon barely exists on New York stages nowadays. People may be surprised to learn that even his longest-running, best-loved work — the TV adaptation of ‘The Odd Couple’ with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman — ceased production more than 40 years ago. CBS rebooted it last year with Matthew Perry, but it’s telling that the show is an old shoe, it’s never really earned or deserved much attention.

So Justin, to help you understand, calling a stage play a Neil Simon comedy — if it’s intended as praise — means the play is  an observant, well-made comedy with dependable laughs and no obscenities. It’s family-friendly. If the comparison is meant as criticism, it means the play is mostly safe and bland. It doesn’t really risk much.

So which is it with ‘Clever Little Lies’?

JWWell, let me ask you something first. If you were asked, what would you say were the major social and cultural upheavals that hit America in the ’60s and ’70s?
Thomas Hart Benton Hollywood, 1937–38 Oil on canvas 56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N

Thomas Hart Benton, ‘Hollywood,’ 1937–38, oil on canvas. Photo: Jamison Miller

Civil rights, the Vietnam war — and the resulting protests — the sexual revolution, and maybe Watergate along with everything that that entailed.

JWOf course. And here’s the thing. You can read all of Simon’s plays end to end, all of the musical comedies he wrote, and learn very little about any of that. In his plays, you can pick up some large, tectonic shifts going on. For instance, because of his characters’ increasing irritation with life in New York during those years (the Brooklyn-born Simon eventually left for California), you can sense the American middle-class’s abandonment of urban downtowns all across the country, something we’re still trying to recover from.

One might argue that none of those big-picture things concern Simon because a lot of that — Watergate, Vietnam — that’s all politics, and he’s after universal issues involving families and jobs, relations between men and women. Actually, it’d be hard to argue that something like feminism wouldn’t affect Simon’s material. But it turns out what’s ‘universal’ in that argument is what mostly applies to the middle-class and, in particular, to a very post-war, boomer sensibility.

What Simon and DiPietro write are basically comedies of manners. Nothing deeper. ‘Clever Little Lies’ is very contemporary with references to baby monitors and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ But it stays focused on the same, well-to-do, little world that Simon did. Outside of the sexual language and the cellphones, very little has changed since, oh, Simon’s ‘Rumors’ (1988) or even ‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’ (1971).

But these days, DiPietro knows he can’t keep things as morally tidy and safely enclosed as Simon once did. So ‘Clever Little Lies’ may end up affirming the values of conventional marriage and fidelity, but there are angry profanities here and a lingering sense of unease — precisely about the costs associated with marriage and fidelity. Ultimately, DiPietro does play it safe. But not as safe as Simon.

Oh, and one other way the Neil Simon label applies. If Joe DiPietro continues like this, he may well become our most commercially successful playwright since Simon. A year and a half ago, the Dallas Summer Musicals kicked off the national tour of the Broadway musical, ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It,’ a Gershwin throwback DiPietro scripted. ‘Clever Little Lies’ was successful enough off-Broadway to move to a bigger house, and then Circle Theatre got it. Theatre Three has brought back the comic revue, ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect Now Change,’ which DiPietro co-wrote and which the theater has run for 16 years. And in April, Theatre 3 will also present ‘Memphis,’ another Broadway musical DiPietro wrote.

All that’s just in North Texas. DiPietro is in his mid-fifties and he’s incredibly prolific. We’re sure to see more middle-class comedies of manners from him.

So you were impressed with something else in Fort Worth?

JWYes! ‘American Epics,’ the Amon Carter museum’s new touring exhibition. It’s a terrific reappraisal of Thomas Hart Benton.

Benton was the great American mural painter of the 20th century. For him, murals existed to tell stories, so he crowded them with muscular, wiry, sculptural people, all of them doing stuff. He studied the Italian masters, and he developed a look that was very influential. Across the country, you can find sub-par Benton-ish murals in federal buildings and post offices from the ’30s through the ’60s.

And Austen Barron Bailey, the curator of American art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, saw the similarities with what moviemakers faced in telling stories on the big screen: how to define historic characters as larger-than-life, how to make the two-dimensional appear deeply three-dimensional.

poster and bookart

Thomas Hart Benton’s art used to promote the 1940 film, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and John Steinbeck’s original novel.

Lots of people watch movies. Is there evidence for a specific link or influence?

JWBenton even worked as a set designer for silent films — and was later hired by studios to create publicity images and capture backstage scenes — so there’s a long and direct involvement. The entire exhibition details the cross influences between artist and industry. We get big reproductions of Benton’s murals alongside videos of scenes from films like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — it was a surprise to learn that even as visually distinctive a director as John Ford actually used Benton’s drawings for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ to help guide the tone of his film.

But ‘American Epics’ also chronicles how Benton’s work declined, flattening out into poster-making and ugly jingoism during World War II. We move from sympathetic portrayals of black musicians and sharecroppers to ugly war propaganda. At the Amon Carter, the exhibition feels a little over-crowded — all those murals on wall after wall — but ‘American Epics’ is still the richest, most fascinating treatment of Benton’s work I’ve ever seen.

Thanks, Jerome.

JWIt’s a pleasure, Justin.
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