I’ve always thought of “hall passes” as something that people may talk about, for fun, but that never actually occur in real life. Like the Loch Ness Monster, or a unicorn. You know what a hall pass means, I hope: The idea that both partners in a romantic relationship can designate a fantasy partner — usually but not necessarily a celebrity — and grant each other permission to have sex with that person (and only that person), with impunity, if the opportunity should improbably arise.
Hall passes are granted and the improbable happens, though — with zany twists ensuing — in “Guilty Pleasures: An Unapologetic Comedy,” which is currently having its world premiere at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood.
The playwright, Ken Levine, has impeccable comedy-writing credentials: He’s an Emmy-winning writer, director and producer whose credits include “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “The Simpsons,” “M*A*S*H,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and other popular sitcoms. And “Guilty Pleasures,” co-directed by Matt Okin and Ilana Schimmel, does indeed deliver a lot of laughs. The hall-pass thing, it turns out, is a pretty good premise for a stage comedy.
But the characters are too thinly drawn, I thought, to make “Guilty Pleasures” a total success.
The setting is a post-pandemic luxury cruise in the Mediterranean Sea. The play’s four characters are two couples: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Larry (Justin Jager) and his English professor wife, Jinx (Katie North); and actress Charlene (Erin McMahon), described as “Hollywood’s biggest star,” and her CNN anchorman husband, Peter (Gavin Hammon). Larry and Jinx make the hall-pass agreement, giving each other permission to sleep with the ultra-famous Charlene and the suave and more-or-less equally famous Peter, respectively.
What they don’t know is that Charlene and Peter’s marriage is on the verge of ending: This cruise is a last-ditch attempt to save it. And with the feuding continuing, Charlene and Peter arrange, early in the play, to stay in separate rooms.
The cruise gives Jinx and Larry plenty of opportunities to bump into them. And so, the improbable becomes inevitable — especially since Peter, we learn, has quite a track record when it comes to cheating. He has, most recently, been having an affair with the private investigator Charlene hired to spy on him.
Larry is the play’s most unsatisfying character. He’s not a cruise kind of guy: Monumentally whiny and neurotic, he says the pandemic lockdown was idyllic for him, as he could just stay home and write. Jager approaches the role like he’s trying to channel the young Woody Allen, with a New York accent that comes and goes. And Charlene is just as much as a stereotype: the dumb-as-a-rock, self-absorbed screen idol.
Much of Levine’s humor is pointed in their direction, whether that means Charlene saying “CNNN” instead of “CNN” and using “conflagrate” when she means “consummate”; or Jinx telling Larry, “You are the definition of, ‘Show me an unhappy Jew, and I will show you a happy Jew.’ ”
Jinx is the play’s most complex character: Smart, adventurous, and resolute in believing that Larry can become more than the dud he seems to be. She quotes from Noël Coward lyrics and has dreamed of this cruise being the kind of voyage that Coward might write about. “I do have a longing for that bygone era, or any era besides the one we’re in now,” she says.
Peter, as a character, is a bit of a blank slate, but Hammon does a good job of making him seem at least slightly intriguing, like someone who’s got a fascinating secret but just isn’t sharing it with you.
Yacht-rock hits by artists such as Kenny Loggins and America help set the mood, and movable, cheerfully colored walls are used to create different locations on the cruise ship, for different scenes. The play’s assistant director Michael Gardiner, who frequently acts in Black Box PAC productions, adds some bonus comedy to the mix as an unseen fifth character: Etienne, the cruise director who is frequently heard making smarmy intercom announcements to the passengers in a cartoonish French accent.
There is some good, wild physical comedy when Jinx and Larry try to have sex as a typhoon batters the ship; and some smart humor directed at the entertainment industry itself. Larry, searching for an idea for his next play, says, “I need a viable social injustice that’s currently in the zeitgest; something that will attract Audra McDonald.” He settles on oppressed luxury-cruise workers, which he likens to slave labor as Jinx rolls her eyes.
She tells him he should make his next project a “sex romp.” Ever serious and convinced that the world is in need of more meaningful art from him, he argues that that kind of play is “inconsequential.”
When she tells him a sex romp can be a “guilty pleasure,” he responds that people will laugh at him.
“That the point,” she responds. In other words, anything for a laugh — which seems to be Levine’s philosophy, too.
The Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood presents “Guilty Pleasures: An Unapologetic Comedy” through May 28. Visit blackboxpac.org.
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