"The Rules" Review - World Premiere at SF Playhouse Venue

June 30, 2016 - San Francisco, California, USA - The Children's Creativity Museum, located behind the famous Carousel at Yerba Buena Gardens, was the site of San Francisco Playhouse's Sandbox Series' World Premiere of Dipika Guha'sThe Rules.”Guha's four-character look at dating relationships and women's friendship was birthed out of the concepts the playwright encountered in what the company refers to as the “seminal anti-feminist dating guide,” The Rules: The Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider.

Julia Falls for Valmont

Shining brightly under the direction of Susannah Martin, a three-time Dean Goodman Choice Award winner with nominations for Bay Area Critic's Circle, Shellie and Broadway World Awards, and with a nod from San Francisco Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English and Producing Director Susi Damilano,  Guha'sThe Rules” is characterized by the Sandbox Series group as a “fable about love and blindness and the promise of happy endings” and “a 'late' coming of age story.”

Valmont the Smooth Operator

In Guha's story, “Julia,” one of three friends (played by Karen Offerins) is set up on a blind date with a CEO with offices in the building in which her friend, “Mehr” (skillfully played by Amy Lizardo) resides.  Julia is instantly smitten with “Valmont” (and we love the use of this character's name since it hearkens to such a memorable literary character- as well to the 1989 film starring Colin Firth), a smooth, mysterious narcissist (played more than convincingly by Johnny Moreno) and can't get enough of him.  She shares her joy with her two friends, “Mehr,” the one who arranged the date and “Ana,” a psychotherapist with an office in Valmont's building (played beautifully by Sarah Moser).  As the story progresses, somehow each of the other two women find themselves in situations with Valmont that lead to his seducing them, too- each in ways that show how easy it is for this character to seize upon a woman's perceived lacks, weaknesses and woundings- whether intentional or by way of some weird (enchanted?) reflex that he claims he can't help. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: he demonstrates himself to be the possessor of a Casanova gene, cops to it, along the way breaking some hearts.  We learn that our "heroine," Julia, a violin-playing, children's music teacher, is afraid to perform in public.  We meet her friend, the super-achieving super-professional Ana bemoaning the always perfect life she's led: "perfect career, perfect marriage, perfect divorce," and see that she has never known self-love.  And we meet her other friend, the under-achieving Mehr who follows, mostly for the worse, in the footsteps of her "nesting" matriarchs obsessed with hearth and home.  All of these fine women, with many strengths as well as these weaknesses, fall for what they think they see in smooth-operating Valmont.

While this story line may sound familiar- boy meets girl, girl falls in love, boy breaks girl's heart- there is completely new territory here in the way in which the three women friends deal with what has happened to them.  Here is where Guha's work takes off from being a simple story written well enough to give an insightful (and entertaining) look into the operation of a seducer, to incorporating purposeful dialogue combined with technology to produce a prompt for both men and women to consider what they bring into relationship for better or worse, most particularly the latter.

Friends Talk About Men

The mounting of the play takes place on a tiny jewel box of a stage.  What the venue might in any way lack in size it more than makes up for in expert set, lighting, and sound.  Watch for thought-provoking use of sound effects here; more won't be said so as not to spoil the experience for those who take the opportunity to enjoy Guha's work here in “The Rules.”  The set carries out thematic elements of the story by way of there being four silver bars on the back walls forming clothing bars.  These bars are decorated with groupings of 40's-ish looking women's styles- dresses, blouses, wraps, sweaters, a jacket. Most of the pieces seem very sheer, all of them are very elegant and smart-looking.  Perhaps this is an echo of the female character in this work.  Perhaps not.  We don't care: it's still of interest.  This theme is appreciated in the gatherings of the women when, when all three are together in a scene, borrowing of clothing takes place and thus demonstrates the differences between but also the undeniable closeness these women friends have as a result of not only their years together but also their common struggles.  One might add - spoiler alert- perhaps without even realizing it (or perhaps with?)- these seemingly randomly-placed garments remind of how well these women are trained to share...

Ana Falls for Valmont

Guha's writing includes brilliance ranging from evocative subtlety to in-one's-face bold and witty repartee.  There is intense confrontation as well as scintillating and attention-demanding conquest that tells us, expertly, what is happening without any need to show us- both, noting with a nod to the playwright- on more than just the Valmont character's part (any more said here would definitely be a spoiler...)  The tense confrontation is noted and appreciated; it is neither preachy nor does it stop the storytelling engine.  We are made to both chuckle conspiratorially with the characters as they attempt to sort things out and also snort when we see something that seems to point to an “old saw” generalization. We are alarmed when we need to be, enchanted if we wish to be, but mainly satisfied- in a peculiar sort of way- as though we've both run a successful marathon and been allowed to eat an entire box of chocolates with no ill effect. 

Smart, funny, insightful to the point of, often, seeming downright aggravating in its authentic portrayal of a modern-day Don Juan (or, literally, “Valmont”), “The Rules” and its cast easily prove itself engaging and entertaining.  Laughter from the audience was noticeable throughout the show- as were the groans as a result of appreciative noticings of bits that just could not be left out because they are necessary to demonstrating the full spectrum of  a character's flaws. 

In social and relationship statements writing, we have on stage perhaps Silver Linings Play Book meets Leslie Ayvazian's Singer's Boy (starring Olympia Dukakis, way back when). And in casting we have a beautiful “bad boy” in Johnny Moreno: a Robert Downey, Jr. meets Gene Wilder as charismatic as when playing Willy Wonka, doling out to each deeply-flawed child whatever candy s/he wanted/needed.  In each of the women we have different kinds of physical as well as inner beauty with flaws that both allow light to shine through--- and Valmont's hubris and potent sexual ooze to seep in.

Mehr Falls for Valmont

The mysterious “Valmont”- a perfect name used as a construct to produce a physical response from the audience as the character Ana repeats it- and then the other women, in turn- with the lingering of an attempt at a French accent- becomes a walking metaphor, and yet we are neither insulted nor bored by this.  The name, itself, becomes transportative for these women- so, too, the audience, as we become a part of the seduction taking place not more than ten feet in front of us.  Valmont's station in life, the CEO of “whatever” (Does anyone remember?  Does it matter?) has assumed wealth and the prestige that one might anticipate follows that.  This, combined with his well-shown appetite for the fantastic- and Moreno does a wonderful job in showing as well as “telling” us through his lines how unable he is to control himself- and the development of his “ism” (referred to cleverly as “persona”) masquerades as salve for the three women's various woes.  During the play, each of the women declare their affections for (attachment to?) Valmont- this male chimera of love in its many forms- and this reporter kept waiting to hear one, or all, of them offer treacly, with trembling voice, “You complete me.”  Thankfully, we are spared that, but we just know that this is each of the three women's internal experience.  We know what is happening- and we appreciate it as a statement about what can take place in the every day as human beings grapple with the insecurities and inconsistencies of life by reaching for another soul to use as life raft.

A psychologist's dream of a play, “The Rules” really works this “Valmont” character.  He is, it seems, someone who completes each of the female characters, for it is in the areas of their lives where they each need to feel completed that he inserts his big toe, then foot, then we are informed but can only imagine what else:  Anna, the therapist, who has been “perfect” all of her life- perfect career, perfect marriage, even perfect divorce- finds she has no one to love her, in fact not even herself.  Mehr, the incomplete student and homeowner, who has been “imperfect” all of her life- yet also following in the footsteps of her female family members, owning a flat while also “owning,” it seems, the family dysfunction, always in need of help with physical construction demanded by what we imagine is, perhaps, an historical and architectural significant building that requires continued care that, seems, she cannot either skillfully (or joyfully) - or doesn't want to- provide on her own.  And Julia, our lead, who is the one with first dibs on the work's “Prince Charming,” is a violin-playing music instructor, sharing her craft, it seems, only with the young children she instructs by way of her day job, never having the courage to perform or even allow herself to “hear her own music within.”

Enter “Valmont” to save the day for each of them!  And enter he does, in every sense of the word, with aplomb.

Valmont Not So Smooth as He Comes to Terms With Who His Is

Does this sound contrived?  Well, this reporter would dare say that this scenario is enacted in various ways a million times a day around the world!  And the narcissism exhibited by the “Valmont” character, one could say, is now played out in both genders...  But it is in this very close-up view of it that we can pause and observe while the actors' stage business and director's thoughtful blocking demonstrate the physical, emotional, and even- as we feel it- chemical interaction when two single individuals, unconscious to their blind spots (or celebrating them?), combine, combust, and come to realize the pain of grand misconception and resulting mistake. 

Characters seemed to be very comfortable with one another, indicative that these actors are well engaged with their craft, as well under expert direction, particularly since there were scenes during which there was full body contact and expressions of romance- set-ups that can either have an audience feeling convinced or conned. We were definitely convinced of what was taking place in the story if not right before our eyes.  Thoughtful yet provocative, the seemingly intentionally controlled- yet uncontrolled- interactions between characters were appreciated.  Again, the tiny, intimate size of the venue added a sense of electricity- big action in a small space- that helped to frame mood.

In “The Rules,” the play, we see healthy emotional, psychic and physical boundaries (aggressively or delightfully?) bulldozed over in the name of heady romance.  As wise women, we can nod our heads in “I told you so” appreciation as we consider the play's namesake, the idea from which this play arose, and that The Rules nonfiction book's mission to encourage emotional, psychic and physical boundaries in the dating lives of modern-day women.  This “new” “Rules”, with its female characters still taking full (foolish?) advantage of their rights afforded via the Sexual Revolution, and wishing for completion via their boundary-less matings, makes a few points that are not only entertaining but possibly prescriptive for those who are awake...

Irrespective of this wisdom that might only speak to a few, along the way, we are gifted with a great story: well-told, funny, engaging, entertaining.  And we, the audience, well, we love a good story. 

And we love a happy ending.  Girl meets boy.  Boy meets girl.  They fall in love- no, scratch that, they fall in lust- and they live, what?  “Happily Ever After”?  Perhaps, not so fast...

We see this "time-tested" (time-questioned?) story unfold in new ways as the playwright expertly and whimsically incorporates the modern technology of texting (perhaps, since we are only privy to the actions, not the content, “sexting.”) as Valmont manages to keep each of his three “girls” on a pheromone and oxytocin high of a leash, the same result of Pavlov's dog here as cupid's arrow arrives on their handsets.  But why?  And what is happening underneath all of that.  It's worth the risk of “spoiler alert” to share that there are even more layers to this work than “spoiled” even here- and the play does have a “happy ending”- but it's quite safe to say it's definitely not an ending one might expect!

The Power of Friendship Trumps, Seemingly, Anything and Everything

And, while this reporter would say that “The Rules” is well worth the admission price for all of the elements of great production, marvelous storytelling, whip-smart dialogue and excellent direction mentioned herein, the ending- as it draws attention to, explores and even begs questions about women's friendships- is priceless.

©2016 Ariel J. Smythe

Production Photos Courtesy of Ken Levin/San Francisco Playhouse

 

The Playwright:  Dipika Guha was born in Calcutta and raised in India, Russia and the United Kingdom.  She is the inaugural recipient of the Shakespeare's Sister Playwriting Fellowship with The Lark Playwrights Development Center, A Room of Her Own, and Hedgebrook.  Her plays include I Enter the Valley, a Weissberger nominee '14 and a Finalist for the Ruby Prize '15; Mechanics of Love produced at Crowded Fire Theatre; Blown Youth published by Playscripts and The Rules.  She is currently under commission from South Coast Rep and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Her play The Art of Gaman will be developed at The Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep this summer. 

The Company:  founded by Bill English and Susi Damilano in 2003, San Francisco Playhouse has been described by the New York Times as “a company that stages some of the most consistently high-quality work around,” and deemed “ever adventurous” by the Bay Area News Group.  The company celebrated its 10th season in 2012-2013, the San Francisco Chronicle touting“the company that lived a hand-to-mouth existence for its first few years has become the little playhouse that could... with its bold Sandbox Series (becoming) a player in developing new works...”  The group is committed to providing a creative home and inspiring environment where actors, directors, writers, designers, and theater lovers converge to create works that celebrate the human spirit.

 

The Rules” runs through July 16 at the Creativity Theater, 221 Fourth Street, San Francisco.

Single tickets are $30, on sale to the public now by calling the San Francisco Playhouse box office at 415/677-9596 or visiting the web site at www.sfplayhouse.org.

 

 

 

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