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Theatre in Review: 2 Across (St. Luke's Theatre)

Andrea McArdle, Kip Gilman. Photo: Carol Rosegg

A crossword fanatic who can't finish the Monday puzzle? I'm afraid that's the level of reality that we get in 2 Across. For you non-aficionados, the Monday puzzle is so simple your cat could probably solve it; each day, the puzzle becomes more difficult, until we arrive at what Josh, one of 2 Across' dual protagonists, calls "Sadistic Saturday," with clues so fiendish they make strong men weep. I'm afraid that Jerry Mayer's new play is like the Monday puzzle -- so simple that it hardly seems worth the bother.

Josh is riding the BART train from the San Francisco airport at 4:30 in the morning, which helps to explain why the only other person in his car is Janet; she, too, is doing the crossword puzzle, but, being a woman of decision, she is working her way through it with the ruthlessness of Sherman taking Georgia. She views his use of a pencil with scorn; for her, only losers need to use erasers. "I don't consider crosswords a life-or-death struggle," he says. "Maybe you should," she replies. "Then you might catch some of your mistakes."

Not a promising beginning, but, as must happen in plays like these, they gradually fall into conversation. He is an unemployed executive, having fled his father's button business. ("Dad pushed my buttons," he says, offering a preview of punch lines to come.) He is also a failed actor. (We heard about him starring in Les Misérables -- at the local Jewish Community Center.) He has a promising interview at Banana Republic in a couple of days. She is a psychologist whose tough-love approach has cost her more than a few patients. At the moment, she is upset, because her son has dropped out of high school to enroll in the Marines. Both mention their spouses as a matter of course, but their chat becomes an extended flirtation as the train rolls on and on.

Both get off at the end of the line, which isn't necessarily good news for audiences at 2 Across, for the dialogue consists of aimless chatter and limp gag lines, most of them commenting on their odd-couple status: He's Jewish; she's Catholic. He's easygoing; she is too tightly wrapped. Mayer has written for a number of television sitcoms, going back to McHale's Navy; this is far from his best work. Many of the lines sound like placeholders in a first draft, with better gags to be filled in later on. "I'll admit I find you somewhat fascinating, like the Titanic," Janet tells Josh. When Janet mentions that her husband is an anti-Semite, Josh wonders how his prejudice manifests itself: "Does he burn bagels on Jewish lawns?" Complaining about her faithless clients, she grumbles, "You know how few crazy people really give a shit if they're sane or not?" We are told that "a crossword puzzle is a metaphor for life," a line that Josh reverses to "my life is a metaphor for a crossword puzzle." He also tells Janet, "You're a delightful intellectual sparring partner." Well, maybe in the lightweight division.

Under Evelyn Rudie's direction, which never provides much shape or urgency to these talky proceedings, Andrea McArdle struggles with a character who changes attitudes each time the train arrives at a new station. She is generally better in the early scenes as the steely, off-putting Janet, largely because her rare displays of softness, as written, are barely believable. Kip Gilman brings a certain rumpled charm to the role of Josh, but the character is one long talking jag; he's the kind of person you move to another car to avoid. The play turns on the question of whether they will break down and commit adultery, but an eleventh-hour twist even makes hash of that.

Scott Heineman's train car setting is a dandy piece of realism, aided by Josh Iacovelli's lighting, which provides subtly different looks for the train in motion and stopped at station. The production has a fairly elaborate and effective sound design, which, oddly, is not credited. No costume designer is named either; perhaps the actors supplied their own outfits.

2 Across is the kind of bauble that is much harder to pull off than it looks. If it is to work, we have to fall for Josh and Janet, something that never happens. The action is predictable, the characters have little or no charm, and the dialogue is without sparkle. The audience at the performance I attended rarely raised more than an occasional giggle. After their bows, the stars came out and offered a rendition of "It Had to Be You." It's a pleasant reminder that, in the vocal department, McArdle still has it, and then some. Can't someone find her a nice musical? --David Barbour

(21 December 2015)

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