It Had To Be You by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna. Directed by Phil Rice.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jerielle Morwitz and Richard Lounello; photo provided
"I’m not good at manipulating."
Renée Taylor’s New York stage career is spotty, stretching from the late 1960s to just a few years ago, mostly in shows that lasted a few weeks at best. These include at least four plays she wrote with her husband, Joseph Bologna, and in some cases performed with him. Their biggest hit was probably "Lovers and Other Strangers" but their most personal vehicle, until their latest effort - "If You’re Leaving – I’m Going With You" - that is, was 1981's "It Had To Be You." This lasted just over two months on Broadway and that’s a shame because in spite of itself it is a very amusing play.
On stage at The Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York, the cast of two (three if you count the three onstage appearances of the stage manager) brings some fresh perspective to the comedy, performing it in ways never conceived of by its authors and stars. The unusual kookiness of the heroine and the sanguine reluctance of the hero of this piece make an interesting juxtaposition for two talented actors. The Barn has brought in a favorite - usually in musicals - Jerielle Morwitz to play Taylor’s role, actress, playwright and masochist Theda Blau. She is joined by Richard Lounello as Vito Pignoli, the somehow classic pairing of a Jewish woman and an Italian man.
"We have so much in common," Theda says early on, learning the man’s name, "I love Italian food." It is the sort of line we are accustomed to hear Renée Taylor utter. In fact, as with her character on the TV series, The Nanny, many of Theda’s responses are food-oriented. Morwitz, unlike the author, is neither corpulent nor large hipped/buttocked/breasted/bellied. She is a slender, almost petite young woman whose particular brand of oddness is in her face, her eyes, her hands, her feet. She moves with the precision of a dancer to create a fey, almost frightening character. Her Theda is less a physical threat than she is a very human one. She gives Theda a passion that shouts itself out in the quiet moments.
Similarly Lounello does not make his loutish character into quite the lout that Bologna would have done. Instead, he has a vulnerable side that keeps popping into focus, sometimes when you least expect it. This is contained, naturally, in the writing, in the script, and yet in Lounello’s interpretive hands that simple vulnerability happens when you least expect it. His entire performance, physical to the enth degree, is a series of odd delights.
The psychology of this play will not please everyone. Theda sets her sights on Vito and basically kidnaps him through sex and has the weather on her side in holding him hostage in her apartment. She claims to have no skill at manipulation, but she does nothing but that all through the long night of their mutual captivity as a storm rages around them.
These two play their fate out beautifully under the deft direction of Phil Rice, a man who seems to have a facility for making plays like this one work for an audience. He pulled off a similar connection with "Same Time, Next Year" a few seasons back. His vision of the play is clear from the outset: Theda epitomizes desperation and Vito represents order. Watching him alter the dynamics here is a wonderful thing.
Abe Phelps, as most often happens, has created the perfect New York City apartment set. Especially nice are the odd things strewn about the apartment that you are certain will be used in some way, and yet they never are used at all. It is that sense of overcrowding, or overdoing the decor at any rate, that gives a validity to the space as well as to the kookiness of Theda Blau.
Allen E. Phelps provides the right lighting, placement, intensity, color, for this show. Sometimes the laughs accompany a light change that subtly expresses the alteration in mood or relationship on stage.
Kyle Harvey has created some amusing costumes for Morwitz to wear and perfect 1980 suit and tie for Lounello. Only his underwear seems too clean and perfect. A quick Brava to Stage Manager Michelle Blanchard for her work in front of the lights instead of behind them.
For a light comedy - once you suspend your indignation at a woman being portrayed as both desperate for a man to complete her and eager to let him rule her - this is a funny way to end the season at the Theater Barn. You may not laugh your head off, but you will laugh from the heart and that’s a good thing at this turn of the seasons.
It Had To Be You plays through September 26 at the Theater Barn located at 654 Route 20 in New Lebanon, NY. For information or tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989.