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Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

It Had to Be You

Also see Susan's review of After Ashley

Karen Jadlos Shotts
and Mark Lee Adams

Karen Jadlos Shotts is a magnificently talented physical comedienne. Now she needs to appear in a play sturdier than It Had to Be You, the current production at American Century Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.

Joseph Bologna and Renèe Taylor, actors and playwrights, created this vehicle for themselves in 1981 out of some of the raw materials of their own lives. It was not a success on Broadway, and one wonders why American Century —with its mission of reclaiming neglected American plays —happened to choose this particular script.

Other two-handed romantic comedies seem more appropriate for American Century's aims, such as William Gibson's Two for the Seesaw or Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year. For that matter, if American Century wanted to produce a play by Bologna and Taylor, their Lovers and Other Strangers is fun, became a successful movie, and offers several perspectives on romance and sex. It does require a larger cast, though.

The play takes place on Christmas Eve 1981, in the shabby Manhattan apartment of Theda Blau (Shotts), an aspiring actress whose luck with men is as bad as her track record onstage. Determined to seize life before it's too late, Theda fastens onto Vito Pignoli (Mark Lee Adams), a straitlaced advertising executive she meets at a doomed audition for a TV commercial.

The conflict of the play revolves around how Theda —more than faintly ridiculous with her shaggy platinum blonde wig, her skimpy mini-dress, her black push-up bra, and her iron determination —attempts to win Vito's heart by any means necessary. The problem is that, despite the zingers and the slapstick, it's very difficult for an audience to care about this woman. Vito finds her deranged and annoying, and viewers may well agree.

After awhile, the initial dynamic between Theda and Vito begins to pall, and the authors try other means to juice up the play. Theda gets to demonstrate exactly how bad an actress and playwright she is when she performs scenes from her unproduced one-woman drama about a great Russian actress. (Writing badly on purpose requires more skill than Bologna and Taylor demonstrate here.) Vito finally gets to talk about himself. And Theda goes way out of character with a jaw-dropping moment that pushes the play from farce to pathos. This scene is impossible to take seriously; it could only have worked if she had ended her sad tale by revealing that it was all a trick to show Vito that she really is a good actress.

Adams is fine as a stolid character facing a force of nature, but Shotts gets to show off. With her large, expressive eyes and a New York accent thick enough to cut with a knife, she holds the audience's attention even when the script doesn't deserve it.

Director Ellen Dempsey keeps the action moving at a workmanlike pace. Thomas B. Kennedy's set and Rip Claaausen's costumes do what they need to do, and Kennedy gets the details right: a dial phone, a typewriter, and Playbills from the correct time period.

American Century Theatre
It Had to Be You
September 8th —October 8th
By Joseph Bologna and Renèe Taylor
Vito Pignoli: Mark Lee Adams
Theda Blau: Karen Jadlos Shotts
Directed by Ellen Dempsey
Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-553-8782 or

Photo: Jeff Bell Photography

-- Susan Berlin

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.

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