Marlo Thomas is funny, sleek and engaging in Clever Little Lies, a four-hander that’s made its way from suburban New Jersey to off-Broadway with a detour last summer on Long Island. That itinerary makes sense, because Joe DiPietro’s comedy — about a wayward young father and the parents who are hellbent on saving his marriage — would only need to shed a few F-bombs and references to incomparable blow jobs to replicate those halcyon days when Broadway was tailored to the matinee crowd.
In an earlier era — the late Fifties or early Sixties — Clever Little Lies would have had an intermission and a profitable Broadway run. It’s the kind of expertly machined situation comedy offered annually by Neil Simon in the early plays like Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot In The Park, its punch lines strung together like pearls along a thin strand of plot and dosed with just enough greeting-card wisdom which director David Saint and his comfortable cast deliver with admirable understatement. I don’t mean that to be condescending, though I know it will come across that way. DiPietro — a jack of all theatrical genres who has Tony Awards for the book and lyrics for Memphis and who wrote the long-running comedy I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change — is a craftsman, and Clever Little Lies is nothing if not well-crafted.
That Girl plays Alice, who runs an indie bookstore in white-bread Connecticut while her husband Bill (Greg Mullavey, a fine fit) does something lucrative on Wall Street. The play opens in the posh locker-room of a downtown athletics club, where Bill has just beaten his son Billy (amiable George Merrick) at tennis. Something’s wrong. Nothing’s wrong Dad, Billy says, before breaking down in tears and admitting that he’s fallen madly in love with his personal trainer, provider of the aforementioned flawless fellatio, which Bill Sr. really would prefer not to hear about. Especially since Billy has a wife and three-month-old daughter at home.
Billy swears Dad to secrecy, which we know won’t work out; the minute Alice stops chattering during drinks before dinner, she observes that something is clearly bothering Bill. Nothing gets by Mom. Sitcom-style antics ensue in which Alice extracts the dope, calls the kids and insists they drive up to New Canaan right now for a family chat.
I’d say the rest pretty much writes itself, but of course it doesn’t. DiPietro has given each of the four (including the terrific Kate Wetherhead as the wife Jane) appealing qualities — and some not-so appealing qualities, which just makes them all the more appealing. Alice’s decision to reveal a secret from her own past in a last-ditch effort to save the marriage comes with an emotional punch from Thomas that simply works, and the closing moment nicely loosens, at least a bit, all the neatly tied-up threads.
Thomas has no equal to her Daddy’s immortal spit-take, but she’s funny and at ease in the role. Only once does DiPietro goof. Alice laments the end of civilization — people come to her shop not for Dickens or Faulkner but for the coffee mugs and tee-shirts emblazoned with their images, or to buy the latest iteration of 50 Shades Of Grey. OK, easy targets. But when she describes her horror at seeing someone reading Jane Austen on her smart phone, I thought, Well that’s all wrong – why on earth wouldn’t Alice say there’s hope for civilization after all, when such people exist?
And that doesn’t address the fundamental fact that, for all the dropping of au courant name brands, Clever Little Lies exists in that dreamscape of First World problems in which no issue is more pressing than the preservation of family under threat from a limber lover. It’s M&Ms, a guilty pleasure.