Wendy Wasserstein's "Isn't It Romantic" at Newport Theatre Arts Center still has traces of effervescence, but its prime is past. Picture a helium balloon the day after the party, a glass of champagne left out overnight.
Is there anyone in 1987 who would still debate the thesis of this 1981 comedy: that it is perfectly acceptable for a college-educated woman to live alone and pursue her career dreams? Even if she chooses to do it in New York City?
After all, Ann Marie was doing just that 20 years ago in "That Girl." (Was it really 20 years ago?) Mary Richards managed to survive in Minneapolis without a husband, television season after television season.
There are some twists and turns in the plot, but the punch line is still predictable. And this production doesn't always help things: The comedy is parceled out in fits and starts through deliberate pacing and blackouts between scenes.
It's too bad, because the story has its moments. So does the cast, as Janie (Marlene Frances) stumbles toward a relationship and a career while her more poised friend, Harriet (Debbie Grattan), seems to have a handle on both. They learn a lot about themselves in their first heady months of independence, and those discoveries are poignant. There are nice moments of reckoning when they make peace with who they are--and with how they arrived there.
Both Frances and Grattan are affecting--Grattan as she rationalizes her romances and Frances as she acknowledges what she has been busy avoiding. However, the cement that glues this production together is Marcie Ross' performance as Janie's doting mother, a woman as full of surprises as she is full of cliches. Ross is too young for the role, but she compensates with a portrayal that is refreshing, annoying, overbearing and winning all at once.
Richard Rieth and Jeffrey Schlichter are fine as the self-centered men in the young women's lives. One is sweet and the other is a shark, but they share a high degree of commitment to their own needs.
The best touch of all is Janie's phone messages, which serve as inspired segues over the scene changes. These little bundles of angst, gossip and news turn out to provide the most telling moments in the script. As a comment on contemporary relationships, what is more revealing than a society that communicates by tape delay?
'ISN'T IT ROMANTIC' A Newport Theatre Arts Center production of the Wendy Wasserstein play. Directed by Joan McGillis. With Marlene Frances, Debbie Grattan, Richard Rieth, Marcie Ross, Larry Blake, Beverly Vanasek, Jeffrey Schlichter, Jorge Belloso. Costume design Jennifer Anderson. Technical coordinator Dewey Douglas. Plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2:30 p.m. matinees Nov. 15, 19 and Dec. 6. Closes Dec. 6. Tickets $7. Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach; (714) 631-0288.