“The Penguin’s 41st season continues its deserved success with Clever Little Lies.”

Eugene PaulTheater Scene

“If you can possibly wiggle some bare ass into  a comfort food comedy, you should do it and this, director Thomas Caruso accomplishes with ease as Bill Sr. (savvy Richard Kline) and Billy,(super Jordan Sobel) his son dress in the locker room  after a  rousing game of tennis which Dad won. Hmmm. Did he, indeed. The faithful Penguin audience appreciates every detail, as Bill junior reveals more and more:  he’s madly in love with his newly discovered soul mate, that knocks out gorgeous 23 year old trainer at their gym. But please don’t tell Mom, Pleeeze. Or Jane. Young Billy’s wife.  Especially. Especially, with their new baby, Bill Sr.’s only grandchild.

Bill, Sr., who can never keep anything from his wife, new grandma, Alice, Billy’s mother. wrangler extraordinary, is already up the creek. Already things are getting funny not so funny. But Tony winner playwright Joe Di Pietro is in his element, full of clever little lies to keep the fun bubbling until  — until  things edge into a clever big lie which is  funny until it is not.

At this point, director Caruso (he directed one of my favorite shows, Southern Comfort, at the Public Theater) cleverly uses his very premises, the Penguin Barn Theatre in which we are comfortably ensconced, turning a needed set change into a suspense moment, because we know that Bill won’t be able to keep a damn thing from Alice and we’re shifting to his living room, (incidentally, one of the handsomest settings the Penguin has ever turned out, it’s by designer James J. Fenton). And there’s Alice (wonderful Jana Robbins) who positively sparkles with one liners about her book store and what’s selling and what’s not.

 All too soon – or not soon enough?–she zooms in on Bill’s tiny discomforts, that Bill is holding something back. It’s like blood in the water to a shark. Bill’s valiant attempts at keeping his vow of silence to his son are sheer fodder for Alice’s gambits at prying. She immediately enforces a family meeting over cheese cake and coffee to talk about this and that. And director Caruso does it again: Penguin crew’s not instantaneous implementation of a set change, Billy and Jane (marvelous Bridget Gabbe) and the baby in their car on the way to Mom’s and Dad’s becomes another suspenseful teaser instead of a dead wait.

 Things are getting shaggier. Appropriately inappropriate words are being flung including DiPietro’s sardonically funny disparagement of one term as homophobic. And right in front of the baby? All the while, Bill trying not to tell what Billy told him?  And Billy trying not to tell Jane about anything? And his cell phone in constant importuning by Jasmine, the delicious trainer? And relentless Alice constantly wangling and prying? In order to save the day and their family? By telling a whopper and asking really uncomfortable Bill to just play along and she’ll solve everything? So that when the word, “Affair” pops up and Jane rears up, Alice confesses that it’s her affair.

And proceeds to elaborate an affair, the dimensions of which are amazingly parallel to that of Billy’s, which she has solved in her own life in her own way, Bill reluctantly noodged to go along with the story.

Director Caruso mounts a doozy of a scene in which Billy’s awkwardly problematic cell phone hurtles from hand to hand as it is snatched by Mom, from Mom to Dad, from Dad to Jane, from Jane to Billy with all its presumed incriminating tales to tell, only to be topped by Billy remembering that when he was five years old he met the man his Mom is telling them all about as her former lover.  This is not a clever little lie. It’s Mom Alice’s big lie to what she considers as saving her family.  But – is it? And what does that do to the husband who has loved her all these years?

David Kaley has dressed – and undressed – his company deftly.  Lighting designer Ed McCarthy gets full marks. The Penguin’s 41st season continues its deserved success.”