Clever little domestic comedy
Playwright elevates stock plot above cliché
TO tell you the truth, Clever Little Lies, the contemporary comedy that closes the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre season, is guilty of being artfully deceptive.
Joe DiPietro’s stealthy script appears to be another gagworthy tale about a poster boy for rich people’s problems. Billy is a handsome, wellto-do lawyer with a beautiful wife, Jane, a new baby girl and an even newer Mercedes convertible. By any contemporary measure, he’s a winner, but it doesn’t take long after meeting him to round out a description with “liar,” “cheat” and “foolishly blind jerk,” for not seeing he already has it all.
And Billy is not too smart, either. As Clever Little Lies opens, he is changing in a posh locker room after a tennis match with his dad, Bill Sr. Suddenly he breaks down sobbing, not because of his rare loss on the court, but because he is carrying on an affair with a gorgeous 23-year-old personal trainer named Jasmine.
What man spills the beans about marital indiscretions to his father? After going into far too many details about his wildly improved sex life, Billy reverts to bad little boy, pleading, “Don’t tell mom.”
Of course, Mom/Alice, the helicopter mother armed with unerring parental ESP, has no trouble prying the dirt out of Bill, who is shockingly lame at keeping the locker-room secret. Alice immediately wants to intervene to save her son’s marriage by asking Billy and Jane to their chic home for cheesecake and motherly meddling.
The 85-minute, intermissionless talker includes a rarely seen onstage car ride. Billy wheels out in his full-size black Mercedes with Deco Dawson’s video perfectly synched on a rear screen to show the trip from one tony neighbourhood to another. That Jane is literally taking a back seat to her husband is no accident.
Director Steven Schipper also keeps to the speed limit, allowing a smooth ride to a worthwhile destination.
It’s at this point that a RMTC patron might expect DiPietro, the winner of three Tony Awards, to play out a pleasant domestic comedy that skims the surface of marital infidelity to earn some laughs before restating middleclass values by having the parents tell the younger couple how to live their lives. The American playwright has filled the stage with stock characters: the stressed-out philanderer ready to dispose of his marriage; his sleepdeprived, baby-obsessed wife; the domineering but well-meaning mother; and the clueless father.
This is where DiPietro, through the resourceful Alice, digs deeper into what a mother will do for love, and the love of her family.
“This is what parents do; they help their children,” says Alice. “That’s why we have them, to help them.” She is willing to risk what’s most important in her life for the sake of what she considers of even greater value — the well-being of her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
Alice launches into a revealing story — or is it a parable? — devised to teach a lesson and pass on wisdom. Is it one of those clever little lies of the titles? DiPietro keeps the audience guessing and contemplating whether truth is more painful than little white lies. Is deception essential to a happy marriage? That debate will carry on among audience members long after the curtain falls.
It’s been a while since Toronto actor Maria Ricossa has graced the RMTC stage, and she returns in top form as Alice, the mother who knows best. Ricossa engages, whether she participates in family drama or earns laughs for her aria about being a bookstore owner at a time when no one reads Charles Dickens or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but instead buys coffee mugs, T-shirts and underwear sporting the authors’ faces.
Eric Blais can do little to lift restless Billy from being a cliché — the unapologetic cad who cheats on his pregnant wife because it’s not the life he envisioned for himself. Daria Puttaert earns more empathy as neglected Jane, but DiPietro provides little room for added texture or shading. Both Winnipeggers are convincing and real, however.
Ricossa’s husband, John Bourgeois, rounds out the cast as Bill Sr., who doesn’t do well with secrets. His best moment takes place early, when he cautions his son about the physical indignities of growing old. He also provides an affecting parting vision of a man deeply unsure about the cleverness of the little lies he’s been told.
From left, Maria Ricossa as Alice, Daria Puttaert as Jane, John Bourgeois
as Bill Sr. and Eric Blais as Billy in Clever Little LIes.