"Same Time" blooms with fine acting, sharp comedy
The challenge in staging a popular romantic comedy such as "Same Time, Next Year," now playing at the St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre, Hudson House Inn, is for the audience to forget other productions they may have seen, or, more likely, the acclaimed 1978 motion picture, starring Alan Alda and Ellyn Burstyn, which seems to run on one cable channel or another nearly every week.
That's not a problem here. Director James Zimmerman and his two exceptional actors, Melanie Nelson of Dresser and Jason Decheine of River Falls, not only succeed at that demanding task, but in so doing create a night of professional theater that surpasses what one may find on much more well-known Twin Cities dinner theater stages.
And the play itself is a reminder that in author Bernard Slade's amazing understanding of human relationships, the depth of his characters, and in his witty, rapid-fire, laugh-until-you-cry dialogue, one finds comedy writing light years beyond the work of most other screenwriters or playwrights. I won't even bring up the inanity that passes for present-day TV sitcom writing.
In the hands of this talented company, Slade's words shine at their polished best.
The plot is simple enough. At the outset, the year is 1951. Accountant George (Decheine) is spending a weekend in northern California balancing the books for a friend's business.
Doris (Nelson) is on her way to a Catholic religious retreat. The couple meet by chance at the California seaside inn where they're both staying. They end up spending the night together. In the morning, they realize they've fallen in love. Problem is they're both married to other people.
Their chance encounter turns into 25 years of weekend assignations as they meet at the same inn at the same time each year. The fast-paced two-acts follow the couple at five year intervals, from those first tentative years when they're in their 20s, and on through the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Their personal relationship neatly mirrors the changes going on in the wider world. And in surprising ways it echoes, too, the ways in which a marriage matures.
The highlight of this production, the fourth at St. Croix Off Broadway, is in the casting. Decheine and Nelson are near pitch perfect in their comedic line delivery and timing. While they do seem more comfortable as their "older" selves -- perhaps because they are nearer those ages in real-life -- each brings to their portrayals an emotional depth that adds an unexpected romantic poignancy to the decidedly unconventional plot.
Decheine is an amazingly physical actor who can use his entire body to communicate a comedic idea. You can read on his face and see in his mannerisms the angst he sometimes feels about the couple's illicit romance. The comical monologues he delivers when he experiences a bout of impotence and then later his uneasiness at making love with Nelson when she shows up eight and a half months pregnant are near textbook examples of comic acting.
The nuanced subtleties Nelson infuses in the underwritten role of Doris neatly counterbalance Decheine's hysterics when he frequently paces the stage expressing guilt only to be overwhelmed seconds later by uninhibited sexual desire. She watches with a kind of bemused air. A less capable actress could become lost in the shadows of the witty rejoinders playwright Slade gives to George, but Nelson more than holds her own.
It is her character, too, most affected by the increased opportunities all women found during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. It's apparent that the freedom she discovered also extended to sexual liberation. She is always much more comfortable in the affair than he is. Nelson's emotionally powerful portrayal of this butterfly emerging from a cocoon is spot on.
Director Zimmerman is known for his attention to theatrical detail. Here he makes effective use of period music (including the film's Oscar-nominated theme song, Johnny Mathis/Jane Olivor's "The Last Time I Felt Like This") and projected newspaper pages from the relevant years. Audience members of a certain age may be startled to find that they remember so many of the songs and the headlined events.
In the end, we find ourselves hopeful that Decheine and Nelson's George and Doris stay together. We realize theirs is romance with a capital "R."
"Same Time, Next Year" plays Friday and Saturday nights through March 3 at the Hudson House Inn, 1616 Crestview Drive, Hudson. Call the box office, 386-2394, for ticket information.
WHAT: "Same Time, Next Year," by Bernard Slade; directed by James Zimmerman; with Melanie Nelson and Jason Decheine
WHO: St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre.
WHEN: Friday, Saturday nights, through March 3; dinner served from 6-7 p.m.; curtain 8 p.m.
WHERE: Hudson House, 1616 Crestview Drive, Hudson.
TICKETS: Dinner, show, tax, tip: $46.65 per person; Box office: 386-2394.
WEB SITE: www.stcroixoffbroadway.com.