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Pairing Off 

Invisible Theatre charms with an imperfect musical about couples.

Going out is always a gamble. You've been disappointed before, so you show up hoping to have a good time but not expecting the earth to move. The evening begins with the usual getting-to-know-you platitudes, amusing but nothing new. Little by little things loosen up, and you start to sense an attractively wacky way of looking at the world. This could be fun after all.

You slip away to the restroom halfway through, and when you get back it's as if the evening's promise got flushed, as well. You've heard these stories too many times before. But then a couple of honest moments of tenderness and vulnerability make you wonder if your judgment has been unduly harsh. At the end you bring your hands together; it's been nice, you decide, but nothing's sparked any passion.

Maybe that could describe your last date, but it's primarily an account of going to see I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at the Invisible Theatre. The musical series of vignettes looks at love from both sides now, from American courtship rituals to postnuptial routine. The four-member cast and music director Khris Dodge have the talent, flair and sincerity to make you forgive the play's flaws, which are all the more disappointing because of the work's occasional sparks of originality.

You might not remember any of the tunes by the time you get back to your car, but Jimmy Roberts' music--except for a dud of a finale--is certainly catchy while it's playing. (Roberts also snagged a climactic bar or two from Kismet and a couple of other classic musicals, but the opening-night audience didn't seem to get the joke.) Joe DiPietro's lyrics are often clever, but too many of his non-musical scenes depend on tired gender stereotypes and family-life clichés (please, not another road trip from hell).

Some of the scenes, though, are terrific. A singles club meets at a penitentiary for a "scared straight--to the altar" presentation by a mass murderer, who not coincidentally is also single. And there's a hilarious pitch for legal representation in bed; leave it to a lawyer to see that you get thoroughly screwed.

Two of the best moments are more bittersweet: Julia Tilley's hopeful smile at the end of her song "I Will Be Loved Tonight," and Liz McMahon's comic dismay and ultimate dignity as a 40-year-old divorcee making too many revelations in a dating video.

But except for the sexual frankness (nothing really smutty, though) and a couple of naughty words, most of this material could have been found on television some 30 years ago. Indeed, suave Michael McLernon is a Doug McClure look-alike, and the versatile Mickey Nugent is sort of a geeky John Ritter. Some TV references are almost subliminal. There's a Mary Tyler Moore hat-toss, and when an elderly gent in an overcoat shuffles toward a senior gal on a bench, one dredges up images of Artie Johnson's dirty old man being pummeled by Ruth Buzzi's purse on Laugh-In. Interestingly, director Joy Hawkins was a regular on the old Dean Martin Show.

Hawkins keeps things moving with verve, but she has the good sense to pull back sometimes; McLernon's "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love with You" is all the more effective for being sung from a seat at the breakfast table, eyes fixed adoringly on an oblivious wife.

More innovative than the script is the set design by Gary McDonald, with James Blair and Susan Claassen. A few colorful boxes are scattered around; between scenes the stagehands reconfigure them into tables, beds, even automobiles, plucking a flat rectangle or circle from the wall to serve as a tabletop or headboard.

The two stagehands, incidentally, represent a missed opportunity. Hawkins usually has the couple leave hand-in-hand after resetting the stage. If she'd done more with their body language, they could have provided a between-the-scenes storyline of their own.

Otherwise, the IT team does a fully entertaining job; the only significant problems lie in the script. As nights on the town go, you could do a lot worse. So go ahead and take a chance with I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. Just don't expect to fall in love with the play of your dreams.

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