Live Theatre Workshop cracks open an old chestnut with their current production, Same Time, Next Year. The Bernard Slade play opened in New York in 1975, and although it was highly popular then, as was the 1978 movie version, it definitely shows its age. But its good nature, when skillfully embodied by a couple of good actors, still manages to give us more than a few laughs and a glance at evolving relationships.
Slade uses an organizing device in which a couple has an annual weekend meetup over a span of almost 25 years. When George (Stephen Frankenfield), a New Jersey CPA on a business trip, and Oakland housewife Doris (Shanna Brock) meet in his California lodging's restaurant, their immediate attraction leads them to George's room for a passionate encounter. However, they are married, and although neither would normally commit infidelities, their connection is such that they repeat their tryst the next year when George is in town for an annual business function.
That tryst leads to annual trysts. Since they never communicate between their once-a-year meetings, we get to know them as they get to know one another, sharing what's been going on with their families and their lives. Slade's setup works well, allowing us to get an idea of who they are outside the hotel room and to see their relationship grow and stumble, just as any relationship does. It's tidy but a bit predictable as we watch six of these encounters, with usually five or six years between their meetings.
The play presents numerous challenges, and LTW meets some of them better than others.
The most critical, of course, is the actor duo, and both Frankenfield and Brock are capable of a heavy workload. They have to show these characters in scene-sized pieces, cultivating a kinship with us as they march through time. And what a time it was. The play begins in the early '50s and leads us on a romp through mid-century uptightness and Cold War anxieties; the cultural upheaval of the '60s; the us-versus-them divide of establishment and counterculture; feminism; meditation and therapy fads. It's really sort of mini-history lesson, and we see it unfold in these two people.
The play is a comedy, and Brock and Frankenfield milk Slade's humor, even if it is of the sit-com variety. They play pretty well off each other, although they have quite different acting styles. Frankenfield is broad and overplays George, the CPA, especially in the first years. Yes, he is excited about his new guilty pleasure and a bit of fumbling is appropriate, but he's a CPA, for chrissakes. It's obvious the playwright intentionally chose to make him a CPA because of how we tend to think about such folks, subdued and awkward in new social situations. The unbridled intensity of Frankenfield's George doesn't feel quite right. In fact, it's counter to George's character arc, and although often funny, it's plain exhausting to watch.
But Frankenfield and Brock, who is much more considered and grounded—but still every bit as funny as Frankenfield—do create a George and Doris with enough chemistry to carry them through their adventures in infidelity. Individually and as a team, they earn our sympathy, and we willingly go along for the ride.
The play also presents numerous production and design challenges, which small theaters like LTW don't have the resources to meet fully. The setting of the couple's adventures is a beach cabin, but we don't really get a good sense of the intended location. The set suggests a hotel room, but curiously, one that doesn't undergo a remodel every few years. It's stays exactly the same throughout the couple's 24-year annual residency.
This stands out because George and Doris certainly don't remain unchanged in their attire. They don the changing fashions of the years, Doris more authentically than George, and the parade of wigs that Doris models makes us smile.
But attention to details of set and costumes are out of reach for LTW. For example, George's costume in the first scene, set in 1951, is in no way a likeness to what a 1951 man's suit would look like. He wears the same style of glasses the entire time, another oddity, considering his other fashion changes. (And all of his trousers are about five inches too long.)
The time between scenes is lengthy as props are moved off and on, and director Sabian Trout has decided just to go with it by giving the duties to "the maid" who serves up a bit of humor as she goes about her job. The bit is tentative initially, but we actually come to see her as a character, and certainly a steadfast employee through her over two decades of service. (Although she is not identified, perhaps this was the prop master, Karin Hupp.)
Sound designer Brian McElroy's job is to take us through the years with an appropriate soundtrack, which he does quite masterfully. In fact, on opening night as the Doris Day's version of "Que Sera, Sera" filled the house during a scene change, many members of the audience decided to sing along. I don't think I've ever experienced such a thing.
Although a bit long in the tooth, Slade's play is sweet and funny in LTW's hands. It's not an exciting piece of theater, but it entertains.