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Psycho Therapy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jan Leslie Harding, Laurence Lau, Angelica Page, and Jeffrey Carlson
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If the 1960s had never ended, perhaps Frank Strausser's new comedy at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Psycho Therapy, would seem fresh, relevant, and even daring. A well-off middle-age couple can't agree about whether they want to live together, marry, or have kids—or even what the ideal order of those events should be—and their joint consternation is compounded by the woman's studly, young, and rich ex-boyfriend who just can't let her go. And the cherry on top is that the therapist in charge of sorting out the trio's wacky entanglements is just as screwed up herself! If this doesn't scream 1965 boulevard comedy, nothing does.

Unfortunately, Strausser has set his play in "Los Angeles" in "the present," subverting even any retro-kitsch potential it may have otherwise been able to generate. What we get instead is a labored and limp semi-romp that manages to be everything except consistently entertaining. It is a passable framework for future hilarity desperately in need of a authoritative force to bring all the pieces together. As it is, this production doesn't even have a billed director, which alone tells you most of what you need to know.

The closest thing to a successful element is Angelica Page, who plays one half of the (official) dysfunctional couple. As Lily, the type of woman who wears her close-cropped blonde hair and fashionable sunglasses indoors utterly without irony, she strikes an amusing note of dry, blasé contemporaneity, as though everyday life is nothing more than a distraction from her troubles and she just wants her next bourbon (or cigarette or other vice of choice). Once we start seeing what her troubles are, we better understand the scope and the source of the ever-expanding mess surrounding this would-be sophisticate in a make-do world.

Lily arrives early on at the office of Nancy Winston, MFT (Jan Leslie Harding), for couple's therapy. The only problem: Her boyfriend, Philip, has not yet arrived. The harried Nancy, who's dealing with a mob of indignant clients on the phone and her sexually active 15-year-old hellion daughter, tries to stall Lily as long as possible, but can't keep her at bay for long. Nancy eventually relents and begins the session, unearthing in record time how Lily has been shattered by Philip's lack of commitment (he backed out of their buying a house together). But they're soon interrupted the arrival of a dashing man who bursts into the office and begins pursuing (and kissing) Lily passionately. She resists at first, and then relents into his grip—there's a bit of frostiness there, but Nancy helps them both make strong strides within minutes. Is their couplehood really in danger?

Well, yes. Because this paramour isn't Philip. It's Dorian (Jeffrey Carlson), Lily's on-again-off-again boy-toy fling, who's pretending to be Lily's boyfriend of record when the real article abandons the appointment. We don't meet the actual Philip (Laurence Lau) until the next scene, when he proposes to Lily (complete with Tiffany diamond ring) over dinner in a Japanese restaurant, and she declines. She doesn't want him to feel he's been forced into making a decision about their future, but every time they talk about getting permanent his feet are blocks of ice. This, of course, sends Lily reeling back into Dorian's arms, and, within a week, all three of them into Nancy's office at the same time, where the professional must first determine who is who, then figure out what everyone wants, and how (or even if) they can get it without destroying everyone else. (While her own life is crumbling, remember.)

Schematic as all this is straight down the line, it's an acceptable shape for a story that even manages to wring some laughs from its way-worn premise (particularly in the opening scene, before the various ruses collide). But there are too few details: Strausser doesn't dig very deep into any of the lovers, which makes most of their bickering flat and ruins the final Dorian-Philip confrontation that is supposed to be the physical and comic climax of the show. (There's a bit of nominal name-calling, shoving, and fighting, but it registers mostly as Marquess of Queensberry–type stuff.) And Nancy, awash with her own addictive and neurotic tendencies (she flails around on the floor, rooting through her garbage can for chocolates, at one point), is not persuasive enough to effect or inspire believable change over these people, and not funny enough to justify her failure.

Harding's straight-arrow female–Woody Allen approach is, however, more specific than anything Carlson and Lau can manage; neither makes a compelling case for Lily's affections, and play their parts as equally annoying sides of the same well-heeled-loser coin. And though Page gets a surprising amount of mileage from piloting Lily above most of the nonsense around her, the actress never convinces you the character is emotionally invested in either her choice or herself to justify the play's too-predictable conclusion. She is ultimately the human equivalent of Michael V. Moore's mod office set: designer-driven, sharp-looking, and cold.

The same can be said of Psycho Therapy itself. It works on some level as mindless fun, but there's too much of the former and to little of the latter for it to satisfy as even craving-killing junk food. It's popcorn without the salt, something that even folks in the 1960s would have recognized more readily as packing material than nourishing, if paper-thin, theatre.

Psycho Therapy
Through February 25
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix