By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
Most romantic comedies succeed by indulging fantasy: men want to date out of their league; women want a nice guy they can whip into a socially respectable man.
Robin Pond’s Even Steven, at the Walnut's Studio 5, borrows the rom-com backdrop but toys with the formula. Teddy (Matt Dell’Olio) and Sarah (Stephanie Lauren) broke up after three years, when she dumped him because his slacker lifestyle no longer fit her careerist ambitions. (That, and a Porsche-driving lawyer took her out a few times, then vanished.)
Both attempt to elevate their sagging status by hiring Steven Ames (Robb Hutter), who runs the titular revenge agency and sets each up with a pretend partner: lawyer-lookalike Jack (John Smitherman) and bombshell Morgan (Meredith Orlow).
Pond’s comedy drips with all the syrup of a badly written movie but argues that people should deal with reality: Men are irredeemable schlubs no matter how much women nag, and an irksome shrew only looks good when not standing next to Katherine Heigl. Instead of presenting a formulaic “love conquers all” story, Pond provides a blunt, refreshing moral that most couples should find happiness by dating at the level of their market value.
Too bad the bulk of the script and the uneven production by Laugh Out Loud Theatre Company don’t pay back the unusual tack and interesting insight. Pond clutters the storyline with the underdeveloped or bizarre motivations of odd secondary characters. And the entire play takes place in the coffee shop that serves as a front for Ames’ revenge business. Unfortunately, unlike the relaxing atmosphere found in most Starbucks, poor lighting keeps the sharp, realistic set in a glaring overload for 85 straight minutes.
Orlow shines in the evening’s one enjoyable role; Dell’Olio, by contrast, gives a fascinating, warped performance that only lacks fake Vulcan ears in its creepy nerdiness. Smitherman’s direction garners humor where it can, in the set's posters (“Drink Coffee: do stupid things faster”) or the guest-actors reading outrageous coffeehouse poetry (opening night featured recent Barrymore nominee Alex Keiper).
As a comedy, Even Steven delivers few laughs, but loud ones, flowing from backhanded compliments, passive-aggressive remarks, and the occasional hysterical insult. Pond’s shoddy dialogue doesn’t match his clever turns (such as Teddy writing reality-comic books about “The Prevailer,” a hero who overcomes adversity by waiting things out). Still, the play serves as a welcome antidote to the next Seth Rogen movie.
Presented by Laugh Out Loud Theatre Company at Walnut Studio 5, 824 Walnut St through Nov. 20. Tickets: $14-$22. Information: 941-544-0164 or www.jdsentertainments.com