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THEATER | REVIEW

Marital Struggle and Humor Meet in 'Troubled Waters'

January 22, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a world full of boy-meets-girl stories, playwright Jeff Gould has given us a romantic comedy that starts five years after the honeymoon.

It's no longer just violins and goose bumps in the marriage of Jack and Liz Waters (Michael Spound and Cynthia Gibb), the couple at the center of "Troubled Waters," which gets its world premiere at the Ventura Court Theatre. These two can start with a lost tube of ChapStick and wind up with a full-blown argument.

Jack is a lawyer, prone to grilling his wife on various subjects and determined at all times to prove that he is in the right. Liz, who works in public relations, is less rational in her arguments, but more passionate. Their chemistry leads to a particularly funny bit in Act I in which Jack asks why Liz answers questions with questions. His job is to ask questions, she replies, while her job is to deflect them.

"Do you have to be so good at it?" Jack asks.

"Would you prefer I be bad at it?" is her retort.

The tension in the Waters' relationship is contrasted by the marriage of their huggy-bear-kissy-face neighbors. Susan (Romy Rosemont) and Lenny (Pete Zahradnick) can't be in the same room without swooning over each other.

What is successful--if not quite masterful--about Gould's play is how he captures the small points of friction in a relationship, the ones that cause disproportionate irritation. I don't know for sure, but I think a lot of ribs got elbowed in the audience as the Waters' fights struck close to home.

But this is a comedy--so no matter how realistic the petty fights, the solutions are going to be humorous. The Waterses try a counselor who goes by the name of the Wise Guru, played by veteran character actor Marvin Kaplan. His common-sense approach is back-burnered, though, as the partners try astrology, psychology, arbitration, and, in one hilarious scene, an honesty machine that gives them a joy-buzzer-type shock whenever they tell a lie.

The resourceful set, by Tom Meleck, is a cutaway of a small house, one that could easily be within a stone's throw of the theater in Studio City. The play opens with Jack's proposal to Liz on the doorstep--which then splits and rolls to each side to expose the goings-on inside. The back of the door panels become exterior locations.

There are no real surprises in the plot (it's a comedy, so you guess how it ends). But Spound and Gibbs have good chemistry, and under Richard Hochberg's direction they rarely slow down. Some of the play's structure smacks of TV's influence--some music cues and the fantasy-spouse dream sequences, in particular--but other parts take complete advantage of the stage.

Toward the end, the Wise Guru returns to help the Waterses patch up their sinking ship of a marriage. "Nobody owes anybody anything," he says. When Jack and Liz protest that his answers are too simple, he adds: "You want deep, go to the ocean. Or better yet, become a theater critic."

Fine, point taken. "Troubled Waters" is not the play to analyze too deeply. But if there's a lesson there, it's to do whatever works, however simple. All I know is that my parents, who have been married 31 years, walked out holding hands.

BE THERE

"Troubled Waters," Ventura Court Theatre, 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Ends Feb. 22. $15-20. Running time: two hours. (818) 789-8499.

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