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THEATER REVIEWS : Dated 'Cheaters' Can't Win in '90s : The talky comedy is no classic, but it fails because only two of the six principal characters are convincing as philanderers and the play is not joyful or sexy enough.


SANTA ANA — "Cheaters," a talky comedy about infidelity, is not exactly a play for the '90s--1960 would be more like it.

The play is so dated it's almost quaint, in an uneven production at the Way Off Broadway Playhouse. Michael Jacobs' play, a conventional homage to middle-aged wife swappers, is tame even by current, TV sitcom standards.

The plot is an arabesque of cheatin' hearts. Two married couples are unaware that they are having congress with each other's spouses. Their kids, to complete the sexual symmetry, are also lovers who are unaware of their parents' affairs.

About 100 years ago another playwright, Arthur Schnitzler, also wove a comedy around sex and seduction, but "La Ronde" (or, round dance) was full of animal joy and sophistication and will endure for many more centuries. "Cheaters" doesn't fail because it's not a classic. It withers because it has no joy and no sex.

At least four of the six principal characters are middle-aged and look ripe enough for their parts. But only two (David Rousseve and Raemi Rollans' endearing philanderers) are warmly convincing.

Rousseve, in fact, is sufficiently charming to look as if he might have just stepped out of the original Broadway show (which bombed after a month in 1978). In contrast, their marital counterparts (Sam McCammon and JoLynn Jones) are grouchy and not even likable.

However predictable the play is, the fun is in anticipating the inevitable confrontation scene, in which everyone's secret will be exposed.

But co-directors D. Glass and B. McCoy don't milk the moment of discovery for all it's worth, and the finale veers toward sentimental slop rather than bite and hilarity.

Part of the blame rests with the playwright. At the game's end, as if afraid to offend the sanctity of marriage, he dismayingly throws the cheating husbands and wives, characters who can't stand each other, back into each other's arms. How sweet. How unreal. Or is the ending meant to be ambiguous? In any event, it's a letdown.

As for those loving offspring, their whiny fights over fear of commitment are so ponderously staged they resemble scenes from another, more serious play. Happily, the young woman (Elizabeth Griffin) cuts a vivid and energetic figure, but the young man (Christopher Wright) is bland, callow and stiff as a stick under the guise of an oh-so-cool veneer. There's no way this gal would give this guy a second look.

The scenically divided set, designed by David Carleen, deftly serves four alternating interiors.

This is at least the fourth production of "Cheaters" staged in Orange County in recent years (including two at the Stanton Community Theatre and one at the now-defunct Sebastian's Dinner Playhouse in San Clemente). Come to think of it, dinner theater is where this chestnut belongs.

*"Cheaters," Way Off Broadway Playhouse, 1058 E. 1st St., Santa Ana, Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., plus a matinee Sept. 26, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 26. $12.50. (714) 547-8997. Running time: 2 hours. JoLynn Jones: Monica

Steve McCammon: Howard

Brian Collins: Howard (alternate cast)

David Rousseve: Sam

Raemi Rollans: Grace

Elizabeth Griffin: Michelle

Christopher Wright: Allen

A Way Off Broadway production of Michael Jacobs' play. Directed by D. Glass and B. McCoy. Set design: David Carleen. Costumes: The cast. Lighting design: David Carleen and Brian McCoy.

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