- Brian Breth and Jill Levin, inept dogsitters.
Those who find their lives incomplete without their weekly visit to the Cedar-Lee to experience the latest cinematic depiction of alienated couples edging toward the abyss will view Cleveland Public Theatre's Sweet Phoebe as a sweet surprise. In particular, devotees of Stanley Kubrick's icy surrealism will find themselves happily at home.
Sophisticates who moaned their way through Eyes Wide Shut, breathing a little harder at each perversity, will relish playwright Michael Gow's meticulous examination of a catalog-perfect couple as the film's scintillating stage equivalent.
The similarities are uncanny. Both works concern the well-ordered lives of married automatons. In both cases an unforeseen monkey wrench a tactlessly revealed sexual fantasy onscreen and a runaway dog onstage send their platinum gears haywire.
Director Lester Thomas Shane is a bit of an all-around sage. As a writer he has done TV biographies of Carmen Miranda and Tyrone Power. As a director he has canvased the country in works as weighty as Hedda Gabler, as giddy as Pretty Witty Nell. And as an actor he managed to literally get his ass into Annie Hall.
Here, with a metaphorical monocle and whip, Shane's direction is every bit as controlled and self-assured as the Clockwork master. With airtight precision, he evokes the couple's escalating suburban nightmare. It begins in the cool, controlled, designer beauty of a Bloomingdale's catalog. Oliver Söhngen's breathtaking apartment set, from its French Provincial cabinet to its wooden window slats and contemporary leather chairs, perfectly realizes the self-contained, airless rigidity of an upwardly mobile Cleveland couple doing their best to pretend they live in a ten-room apartment on Central Park.
Frazer and Helen (Brian Breth and Jill Levin) are presented as the embodiment of cosmopolitan youth and beauty: slim, eternally coordinated in tasteful grays and burgundies, with their every move suggesting a House Beautiful center spread. They tastefully banter, as in the most erudite sitcom. Yet the tiniest intrusive breeze tends to send them off course. A requested extra shelf in the bathroom that the wife is designing or an ill-timed telephone call during a lovemaking session reveals the cracks in their porcelain armor. When asked to dog-sit, they weigh their options with the self-importance of a Senate debate. After they accept the responsibility, with the unseen dog in the apartment, the play sharply veers into Lassie land: They bond and find their humanity through vigorous sessions of doggie walking.
This 75-minute mar-athon frantically evolves, like Darwinism on uppers. The audience has its face shoved into a microscope, watching the couple progress like ever-changing amoebae. Then they are suddenly confronted with reminders of young Roddy McDowall searching for his Lassie and Shirley Booth forlornly summoning little Sheba. Phoebe has escaped. Frazer and Helen begin to frantically scour the streets of Cleveland, from Coventry to the wilds of Brook Park, where they encounter despair in dog kennels, adultery with false finders of Phoebe, and the revivifying effects of karaoke in a Vietnamese restaurant. It becomes the play's black joke that, as the days fly by in hallucinogenic projections, as new-age jazz chronicles their growing mania, this L.L. Bean couple come close to losing their sanity and souls (if they have any) over a dog gone.
Michael Gow's play is soundly thought out. Like its Kubrick companion, it cleverly spins desperation and degeneration into vaudeville skits coated in platinum ironies. Yet, like that precious metal, it is cold and inhuman. Its triumph is that of a Rube Goldberg contraption.
Functioning as the royal kiss to give it breath is Levin's Helen. She bestows a star-making performance, starting out as a cerebral pin-up girl reminiscent of Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. When events head toward a Looney Tunes Armageddon, she puts on her Meryl Streep boxing gloves and reacts like a champ.
Breth has the aura of a boyish extra in a Frankie Avalon beach-party movie. He performs his transformation from straight-laced junior executive to sadder but wiser, battle-scarred hubby with efficiency, but on a lower rung of the evolutionary scale than his co-star.
After the smoke clears, Sweet Phoebe leaves the audience with eyes wide open.