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Theatre in Review: Don't You F**king Say a Word (59E59)

Jeanine Serralles, Bhavesh Patel, Michael Braun, Jennifer Lim. Photo: Hunter Canning.

The best thing about Andy Bragen's new play is that it lets us spend some time with Jennifer Lim and Jeanine Serralles. They play Kate (Lim) and Leslie (Serralles), old college acquaintances who run into each other and -- despite their penchant for making catty comments about each other out of earshot -- start socializing. They were sort-of friends long ago, and they're become sort-of friends once again. At the same time, Russ, Kate's husband, and Brian, Leslie's live-in fiancé, strike up a very different type of relationship: They become tennis buddies.

The latter relationship is cordial on the surface but in reality is shot through with male aggression. The center holds as long as neither has the upper hand for too long -- and there's always the promise of donuts after each morning match. But after a winning streak goes on too long, things turn ugly, and a hobby becomes an obsession -- an unhealthy one, at that. Much of the play consists of Kate and Leslie presenting -- with the detachment of academics presenting a paper on the collapse of the Grand Alliance -- on the increasingly tense rivalry between Russ and Brian and "the day their friendship, or whatever it was, came to an ignominious end."

This isn't much material for a play, even one that runs only 85 minutes, but the two ladies help keep one's attention focused. Asked about joining her friend for a yoga session, Serralles' eyes widen and she responds with a series of non-verbal sounds indicative of rising panic. When Brian, coming on to her, announces, "I'm a loving machine," her simple response ("No, you're not") is enough to permanently undermine a man's confidence. Serralles also gives Leslie a thoroughly amusing way of disowning a line she doesn't believe in: She delivers the words, then, freezing her face into a mask of skepticism while she looks sideways, lets the remark in question shrivel under her remorseless gaze. Lim deploys a natural authority that would prove effective whether running a kindergarten or the United Nations. When Serralles goes off on a tangent, furiously identifying the roots of Russ' aggression in his parents' loveless marriage, Lim silences her with a look and a comment ("Too much"), like a parent whose child is misbehaving in public. She also has a unique way of keeping us engaged, which involves presenting a semi-provocative statement, then pausing, assuming a neutral expression -- perhaps with a tiny smile -- making sure the words sink in. The two are especially amusing when detailing the books and instructional videos their men turn to, with titles like Lift Your Serve, The Inner Game, and The Points That Matter. Kate adds, "Did we mention that there was a recession, that they were, to put it charitably, underemployed?"

As the ladies make clear, there are many reasons for the increasingly unpleasant competition between their men. Russ is a classic New York actor/waiter, waiting for callbacks that never seem to come and increasingly sick of his day job. Brian is semi-unemployed, too, working at home, part-time, as a copy editor; in his late 30s, he is haunted by the memory of a father who spent most of his middle years without work. Being attached to such supremely competent women isn't helping them, either; the tennis court proves to be the ideal place to work out these anxieties.

Well, at least for a while. But when the big incident finally happens, it isn't so much -- it involves a bit of shoving and a torn shirt -- and it hardly seems to justify the lengthy buildup. Somewhere along the line, you start to notice that the play's format isn't hilarious enough for full-on satire, yet the tendency to treat the characters as specimens prevents one from caring much about them as individuals. By the time all four sit down for a kiss-and-makeup dinner -- which, of course, disintegrates into a welter of allegations and revelations -- you begin to realize that Don't You F**king Say a Word is little more than warmed-over Yasmina Reza, a bourgeois bestiary with a sour undertone.

Still, under the solid direction of Lee Sunday Evans, Lim and Serralles keep things watchable; playing archetypes of male vanity, the men have fewer opportunities until the very end, when Michael Braun, as Russ, gets to turn on the charm as he sets out to seduce Kate all over again, and Bhavesh Patel, as Brian, is given a blessedly honest monologue about his life since the infamous incident, and you suddenly see the man that Leslie must have fallen in love with.

The production is reasonably solid in other respects, including Amy Rubin's tennis court set, Ásta Bennie Hostetter's well-chosen casual wear, Masha Tsimring's lighting, and Amy Altadonna's sound design. As a game for mixed couples, Don't You F**king Say a Word is little more than a professionally done time-passer. But no time spent with Lim and Serralles is ever wasted. -- David Barbour

(21 November 2016)

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