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Theatre in Review: Pratfalls (Ground Up Productions at Abingdon Theatre Complex)

Every so often, I hear someone wonder why there are so few romantic comedies in the theatre anymore. The answer is a complicated one, but one simple answer is that such plays -- so airy and effortless-seeming when they work -- are much harder than they look. Consider the case of Pratfalls.

Holly Webber's comedy begins on the morning after a one-night stand. Roy is a struggling standup comic whose act made such an impression on Elena, a corporate lawyer, that, after one Cosmopolitan too many, she decided, "I must give this man explosive pleasure in bed at least once before I die." ("I wish more of the audience felt that way," says Roy.) Things look different in the clear light of day; as they take in the sun on the roof of Roy's apartment, he gently prods Elena for another date; she makes exits noises, citing the pressures of work. They are joined on the roof by Frances, a querulous old lady who depends on Roy for mostly everything. Frances is most definitely not going gentle into that good night. "I've been falling down a lot lately," she says. "The doctor says it happens to old people all the time. They just start reeling around like they're on a tipping ship-deck." She's not alone; the scene ends with Roy falling down the stairs, breaking both his arms.

The rest of Pratfalls covers Roy's convalescence, during which Elena, more out of guilt than affection, nurses him. Roy, who can't even light a cigarette in his invalid condition, tries to talk his way into Elena's heart, while the jealous Frances offers malicious commentary from the sidelines. Love, guilt, and the unintended consequences of romance are Webber's subjects. Elena feels responsible for Roy's accident; she is even more guilt-ridden over her husband's death, the strange details of which are explained at length. Further complicating matters, the road to romance is paved with accidents, and several more mishaps will occur before the Elena-Roy relationship is sealed. (Keep your eye on that ceramic owl perched precariously on the roof.)

Pratfalls isn't dull; Webber provides some amusing remarks that are always rooted in the characters, not in routine sitcom gagging. Jenn Thompson's light-fingered direction keeps the action watchable at all times. But nobody involved has been able to make it seem as if anything real is happening between Roy and Elena, and, as a result, the play comes off as something of a non-event.

This is nothing against leading actors Victor Verhaeghe or Kate Middleton. He captures Roy's whimsical side without being cloying about it -- his performance features various acts of self-punishment, such as hitting his head with a baking sheet -- and he makes Roy's desire for Elena seem positively palpable. But, as written, Elena is a very cool customer, and Middleton seems to be too honest an actress to supply emotions that aren't in the script. We never really sense a growing warmth between them, and, as a result, their romance feels like a contrivance.

Amelia White does pretty well with the tricky role of Frances, who is meant to be a lovable grump, but whose barely concealed mean streak makes her easy to hate. (An indiscretion of hers provides the flimsy reason to keep Roy and Elena apart for a scene or two.) Matthew Baldinga is okay as a pretentious neighbor who works in an art gallery and owns a dog named Julian Schnabel. The show benefits hugely from Travis McHale's rooftop setting; his lighting provides a number of realistic time-of-day looks. Amanda Jenks' costumes and Toby Jagua Algya's sound design are both solidly professional contributions.

Pratfalls has many of the key ingredients of a good romantic comedy, but somehow -- largely because Webber never makes us feel that Elena and Roy really belong together -- the necessary alchemy doesn't take place. It's like a one-night affair -- pleasant, but easy to forget.--David Barbour

(1 May 2012)

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