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White's Lies

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Betty Buckley, Tuc Watkins, and Christy Carlson Romano.
Photo by Ken Howard.

No, you are not imagining things. White's Lies, the new play by Ben Andron that just opened at New World Stages, is in every way an old-fashioned—one might even say antiquated—sex comedy. As though it were wrenched wriggling from the depths of the 1960s, it's crammed to bulging with dullish titillation, unfunny jokes, the grandest of grande dames gracing the slums and, most important, barely any sex to speak of. One really had assumed this type of painfully harmless show had died out when TV became the vast wasteland from which no American could look away.

But no. Andron, who is described in his Playbill bio as "a writer/producer of motion picture marketing" and has been involved with a number of recent high-profile movies, has attempted a resurrection of the form much the way J.J. Abrams did an aging franchise with last year's Star Trek film (one of Andron's, by the way). The results are, as there, more soporific than they are scintillating, but they're a pleasant enough diversion from New York's violently unpredictable late-spring weather and that silly "common sense" stuff that gets in the way of so many plays with ambition.

White's Lies certainly doesn't have much to speak of. Soon after the lights come up, we're introduced to a scantily clad redhead and the even more bare Joe White (the cheeky and chiseled Tuc Watkins). He's a power lawyer with a thirst for one-night stands (all of whom, like his present fling, are played by Rena Strober), and a habit of telling any woman anything to get her in bed and then out again the next morning. Well, "bed" in the figurative sense: He has to carry on most of his trysts at his office, since too many of his former assignations now know where he lives.

Regardless, Joe's scheme goes over well with his nebbishy friend and associate, Alan (Peter Scolari), who longs for just that sort of ongoing sexual adventure. It fares rather less well with Joe's mother (Betty Buckley), who'd be embarrassed to death by him if she weren't already dying of cancer. And her one wish is to see Joe settled down with a wife and kid before she kicks the bucket, some three to six months hence.

With this plot liftoff, Andron rockets down conventional plot avenues. Joe still enjoys playing the field, so he decides to lie to his mother to preserve his bachelorhood. A new divorce client and a long-ago flame, Barbara (Andrea Grano) presents the perfect opportunity: She has an adult daughter, Michelle (Christy Carlson Romano), who's about the right age to be Joe's—but isn't, she's absolutely positive—so she'll "loan" Michelle to Joe to pretend for the next few months, in exchange for free representation. Mom wins, Joe wins, Barbara wins, everybody wins—unless Joe falls for Michelle. But, really, what are the odds of that!

Pretty darn good, let's say. No one can accuse Andron of overly taxing the weary theatregoer's mind with all of his slapdash characters and the shiny but clich├ęd plot twists he deploys. But his willingness to go all the way with his concept is impressive, and it's impossible not to marvel at the show's intricately detailed pointlessness, particularly of the second act—the last scene alone is so elaborate and convoluted, you may find yourself wanting to applaud its daring but unable because you're using one hand to scratch your head and the other to prop open your eyelids.

The rest of the production is just as bipolar: Robert Andrew Kovach's set is a swank and sophisticated sex palace (despite, as mentioned, also being a lawyer's office), but Bob Cline's direction is little more than traffic management. Watkins and Grano plow through their lines with professional verve, but an underlying sense of disinterest; Romano and Scolari give more complicated, layered readings of their conflicted characters that somehow don't make much more of an impact. In the "ensemble" roles, Strober is inconsistently saucy as Joe's myriad flames; and Jimmy Ray Bennett is a dry delight as Joe's quasi-assistant (he insists he's an associate), but rather less incisively funny as a be-anyone bartender or the obligatory doctor who's always around to deliver the necessary bad news.

As for Buckley, she's in all-star-all-the-time mode here, sweeping through her role much the way she did Norma Desmond in the musical Sunset Boulevard. Her role is tiny and thankless, but she elevates it to something of indistinct distinction, a memorably glamorous turn in a forgettable part that's part of an even more forgettable play. You can help but wonder, however, whether she were cast just to get some extra mileage out of Joe's reproving line: "Mom, you can't sing!"

Mom, alas, doesn't—that would provide a bit of the music that the show all too often lacks. That doesn't stop the play from trying to sing anyway, and as American Idol has proven, sometimes tone-deafness can make for an entertaining evening. You won't respect yourself in the morning, of course, but if Andron has consigned himself to write trash, at least White's Lies is amusing enough trash to mostly ease the hangover.

White's Lies
New World Stages / Stage 4, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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