“Clever Little Lies” is about a love triangle, though there’s a square superimposed on that triangle.
Let me explain.
In the first scene of the comedy — written by Joe DiPietro, and being presented at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township through May 7 — Billy (played by Ben Kaufman), a married lawyer with an infant daughter, reveals that he’s been having an affair with Jasmine, a stunningly beautiful 23-year-old physical trainer who works at the gym he’s been spending way too much time at. The rest of the play basically deals with the aftermath of that revelation.
But Jasmine never appears in the flesh; the triangle never materializes. Instead, the play shows only Billy, his wife Jane (Rachel Matusewicz), his father Bill Sr. (Bob Mackasek) and mother Alice (Harriett Trangucci) working it out, with the relationship of Bill Sr. and Alice being examined, too, as a kind of parallel to Billy and Jane’s. That’s the square.
The play — which premiered at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick in 2013, with Marlo Thomas as Alice, and later ran off-Broadway — delivers some raucous laughs, and well as some squirm-inducing drama as difficult truths are revealed by more than one character. It also amounts, on another level, to a meditation on the nature of love and marriage by one couple that has made a long relationship work for them, and another that is just starting out on the journey.
There are some elements of it, though, that are jarringly unrealistic. Alice intrudes on Billy and Jane’s life in an outrageous manner, and Billy and Jane (and Bill Sr., for that matter) don’t flinch. Jane arranges a surprise Hawaiian vacation for her and Billy — three months after giving birth! — and goes behind Billy’s back to ask his boss if it’s okay that he take the time off.
Billy reveals his infidelity to Bill Sr. in a gym locker room. He’s supposedly paranoid about anyone else finding out, yet talks about it, loudly, in a place where other people could easily overhear it.
Some bits certainly ring true, though, like when Bill Sr. keeps telling Billy how well he played at tennis, and Billy complains that Bill Sr. is just saying that to make him feel better about himself (since Billy played horribly, and Bill Sr. won). Or when Billy gushes about Jasmine (“It’s like she has a window into my soul”) and Bill Sr. asks if she has any faults; when Billy can’t come up with one, Bill Sr. says that he really doesn’t know her at all.
Overall, “Clever Little Lies” seems like a modern take on Neil Simon, with some modern references (to “50 Shades of Grey” and cellphones, for instance), more explicit sexual conversation than Simon would ever dare to write, some old-fashioned wit and wisdom, and a few unfortunate contrivances. The jokes come fast and furiously, but the play becomes increasingly serious as it goes on, and the ending is hopeful.
Among the actors, Trangucci has the most daunting task, since Alice is so brazenly, unbelievably meddlesome. But she handles it well, signifying, with a shrug and a coy smile, that she knows she’s being impossible, but can’t help herself, so you’d better just go along with it.
“Clever Little Lies” is at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township through May 7; visit morrismuseum.org.