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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Ménage a Trois South Florida Retiree Style

Also see Bob's review of Come Fly With Me: The Songs & Stories of Sammy Cahn

There is not much that a sophisticated theatergoer will find immoral in the East Coast premiere of Jeffrey Sweet’s civilized Immoral Imperatives which is on view at Montclair’s Luna Stage through May 23rd.

The play concerns an unconventional relationship among three consenting adults. It is not a ménage a trois in the convention sense. However, it might well be thought of as a ménage a trois South Florida retiree style.

Hank (Count Stovall), a retired New England college professor of some distinction, and his wife Terri (Jane Mandel) have relocated to the Florida Keys. During visits to Key West over a period of many years, Hank has come to regard the widowed Dale (Paul Murphy), whom he has always hired (along with his boat) for fishing excursions, as a personal friend.

Arriving in Key West from their new home on the Keys in Marathon, Hank and Terri discover that Dale’s uninsured boat has been hijacked by Cubans. As a result, Dale is out of business until he can raise the funds to buy a new one. To boot, Dale has to vacate the abode of his girlfriend Liz (Kristine Niven) whose ex is coming back for an attempted reconciliation. Dale accepts their proposal that he temporarily move into a bungalow on their property, and help them by making necessary house repairs which they do not have the skills to do themselves.

When Terri calls Dale for assistance after being assaulted by a wrong guy pickup, Dale is incensed to discover that he has been made party to her dalliance.

The next day, Hank explains to Dale that his ability to perform sex had waned precipitously. Upon realizing that he was no longer interested, he discontinued extraordinary methods to achieve tumescence (why a compressed air pump and not Viagra?). As a result, he and Terri have an arrangement wherein he periodically goes out of town at which times Terri goes out and picks up guys for a one night stands.

In order to protect his beloved Terri from again becoming a victim of the danger of such activity, Hank suggests on behalf of himself and Terri that Dale become her sexual partner. At first reluctant, Dale agrees on condition that the activity only occur in his bungalow. Dale comes to want more from Terri, but the arrangement holds until Liz arrives on the scene ready to resume her relationship with Dale.

The story is believable, the ideas provocative, and the dialogue is okay. The characters are likeable and sympathetic. While today’s plays and movies are filled with studly activities, Sweet addresses common problems which no one seems to want to talk about. The presence of good taste and the absence of prurience are evident. Yet the overall effect is only mildly interesting and lacking in dramatic spark.

Perhaps Jeffery Sweet should have written Immoral Imperatives as a short story or even a novel. The play is more literary than it is theatrical. It introduces large patches of back story and exposition through the device of having members of the friendly ménage speak directly to the audience. The myriad epilogue-like happenings which conclude the story are presented in this manner. When the play flashes back from these events to its climactic scene, there is a quiet encounter which fails to deliver any punch or emotional satisfaction.

The play is written from a male point of view and Sweet seems most interested in the psyches of Paul and Dale. The character and feelings of Terri are relatively unexplored, and Liz essentially performs the task of deus ex machina.

Luna Stage artistic director Jane Mandel is convincing as Terri. Neither glamourous nor unattractive, she comes across as very human. However, author Sweet does not give her any depths to plumb.

On the other hand, the smooth and likeable Count Stovall fails to find any subtext in the role of Hank. He, and I must assume director James Glossman, have taken the calm and unruffled exterior with which he discusses intimate details of his lost sexuality at face value. This seems to me to be a gross misreading of Sweet’s intention. Did Stovall and Glossman discuss what may have been the real reason behind Hank and Terri’s belated decision to leave New England?

The color blind casting of Stovall would only be commendable if not for several references throughout the play indicating that Hank is Jewish. If his religion is a topic for mention, would not his race be at least equally so?

A different problem entirely is Paul Murphy as Dale. His acting is impeccable and sensitive. However, he is so badly miscast that he does not have any credibility. Dale lives on a boat under the Florida sun. His work requires daily physical strength and effort. Casting someone whose physicality undermines every aspect of a character is not what is meant by casting against type. It is only inexplicable and maddening.

(Author Jeffrey Sweet pays homage to the great pulp novelist John D. McDonald. His Dale has modeled his lifestyle after that of McDonald’s magnificent creation, Travis McGee. This is a wonderful touch as it is likely that every male McDonald reader of a certain age shared that fantasy.)

Kristine Niven is a fine Liz. She conveys the uneasy ingratiating manner with which Liz would present herself when attempting to bring Dale back into her life.

Immoral Imperatives
Paul Murphy, Kristine Niven, Count Stovall, and Jane Mandel

The ambitious and talented folks at Luna Stage reconfigure their theatre for each new production. However, the placement here of the interesting, artistic set by Nora Chavooshian is problematic. Consisting of a surreal high green seawall background and a series of descending stone shelves narrowing into the shape of a peninsula, it provides any number of playing areas to represent various locations. Unfortunately, it is placed in one corner of the rectangular space with the seawall background on the right wall to the side of the length of the space. Less than a third of the seats are opposite the wide sea wall in an area intimate to the playing area. The vast majority of seats face an elongated, narrow playing area distancing the play and creating a cramped appearing, tunnel-like effect.

Luna Stage is in sub par form with this production. However, while Immoral Imperatives falls short of its ambitious subject matter, it is an interesting and honorable piece of work.

Immoral Imperatives continues performances through May 23, 2004 at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box Office: 973-744-3309; online www.lunastage.org.

Immoral Imperatives

by Jeffrey Sweet; directed by James Glossman. Cast (in alphabetical order): Jane Mandel (Terri); Paul Murphy (Dale); Kristine Niven (Liz); Count Stovall (Hank).


Photo: E.J. Car


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Bob Rendell



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