Clever Little Lies at Penguin Repertory Theatre

Peter DanishBroadway World

“Here’s the bottom line: Go see it, it’s totally hilarious!

Joe DiPietro, who gave us the evergreen “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change!” has another hit on his hands with “Clever Little Lies.” The play feels a little bit like an extended sit-com – only with better jokes. In fact, the play’s structure and pacing is completely evocative of several of Neil Simon‘s early hits, with an emphasis on “family values” and how complex relationships can be. It has an old-fashioned feeling and a somewhat superficial style that moves quickly from silliness to seriousness without a great deal of character development or real depth.

One caveat: there are quite a few “adult moments,” enough four-letter words to make a sailor blush (far more than necessary) and some brutally frank descriptions of various sexual acts. That said, the show is virtually non-stop laughs from start to finish.

As the title suggests, the play is about lying – specifically to your spouse – about infidelity. It’s a perennially ripe subject, but the play really doesn’t break any new ground, but the ground it does cover, it does very well.

BWW Review: CLEVER LITTLE LIES at Penguin Repertory Theatre
Jana Robbins, Richard Kline, Photo: Chris Yacopino

The play begins with Billy losing a tennis match with his father, Bill – which brings about a locker room confession to his father, that he’s in love with his 23-year-old personal trainer at the gym. His father is distraught and asks how this is possible given Billy’s seemingly happy marriage to a beautiful wife and a brand-new baby. Billy’s rationale won’t win him many fans in the audience and makes him a really unsympathetic character. He begs his father not to tell his mother (one wonders why he told him in the first place?) but no one in the house believes for a second that that’s going to happen. “Your mother has a way of extracting things from me.” Says Bill in anticipation of spilling the beans. Richard Kline, a long-time Penguin favorite and TV’s Larry from the sitcom “Three’s Company” was pitch perfect as Bill, the long-suffering husband and father. His facial expressions alone were absolutely priceless.

A special shout out here to the brilliant sets by James J. Fenton, which actually got a huge ovation when the lockerroom morphed into the elegant living room of Bill and Alice’s home. Great theater!

Given the preamble, when we meet Alice, Billy’s Mom, (played to the hilt by Jana Robbins) it comes as no surprise exactly what kind of personality she is going to have. To Mr. DiPietro’s credit, despite the obviousness of the characters and many of the situations, he still manages to get a ton of laughs out of each. Kudos to Director Thomas Caruso for taking a fairly static story and keeping the pace lively and the movement honest and not gratuitous.

BWW Review: CLEVER LITTLE LIES at Penguin Repertory Theatre
Jordan Sobel, Bridget Gabbe, Photo: Chris Yacopino

Jordan Sobel has the difficult job of playing Billy, who continues not to show a lot of redeemable qualities when he and wife Jane visit his parents’ house for dinner – baby in tow. Dinner never materializes – only cheesecake, and a chat about “this and that.” The comedic tension runs high as Alice begins interrogating Jane, played by Bridget Gabbe, who does a fine job despite being hobbled by the character’s lack of development. In addition, Jane’s appearance felt a bit out of kilter. Billy is leaving her for a 23-year-old hottie at the gym, but she is quite the hottie herself – complete with gorgeously blown out hair and perfect highlights – not some doughty, housefrau, with dark circle under her eyes from taking care of a new-born, as the playwright seemed to imply. Maybe a ponytail at least?

Alice is a complete chatterbox, whining incessantly about how her bookstore has devolved into a soft-core pornography shop, with customers more interested in drinking from Charles Dicken’s coffee mugs rather than reading his books. Ms. Robbins and Mr. Kline give a master class in comedic timing and delivery in their scenes together.

Just as the whole family is about to fall apart she begins telling a story of her own. No one -onstage or in the audience – is quite sure if she’s telling the truth or just making it up to save the day. (no spoilers here!)

The play never really digs deep but it does deliver in a big way. “Clever Little Lies” is chuck-full of clever little lines – and a cast that knows what to do with them!”