The ever-fertile topic of relationships has, in recent years, yielded such laugh-along battles of the sexes as "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and "Maybe Baby, It's You."
David E. Talbert attempts something similar in "Love on Lay-A-Way," playing through Sunday at the Wilshire Theatre. Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, the show peels away the walls of a Philadelphia apartment building to observe the relationships inside. Every so often, Talbert comes up with a pithy way to describe the disconnect between his male and female characters, but while several of his previous shows -- including "The Fabric of a Man" and "He Say
Talbert uses three romantic pairings to illustrate the issues of commitment and trust that often hang couples up. Monique (R&B singer Deborah Cox) and Anthony (movie/television actor Mel Jackson) are a financially successful young pair who've been living together for 4 1/2 years. Monique expects an engagement ring soon; Anthony doesn't seem likely to deliver. The relationship between young Epiphany (Joi Campbell) and Reggie (Chico Benymon), meanwhile, is kept at arm's length until they can find a way to be a family to her son by a previous man.
The middle-aged set has a lot to learn too. To illustrate this, Talbert includes what turns out to be a saving grace: the comic pairing of super-sized, sassy Willanetta (Cassi Davis) and Renzo (Buddy Lewis), a stuck-in-the-past Lothario who's copied his romance skills from soul and R&B classics.
Typical of the show's humor is their exchange when Willanetta refuses entry to her apartment. "You got another man in there?" Renzo demands. She replies affirmatively and spells his name: "J-E-S-U-S." Slow on the uptake, Renzo finally puzzles the letters together but comes up with the Spanish pronunciation and assumes she's taken a Latino lover.
Although Davis and Lewis put a comic sheen on their scenes, the rest of the actors plodded through Wednesday's performance as though they had received the script just hours beforehand. Veteran actress Marla Gibbs and singer Alexander O'Neal were squandered in little more than walk-on roles.
Further complicating matters: The apartment building's exterior walls peel away to reveal scenes inside, but Wednesday at least, the building's massive stoop remained planted at the center of the stage, cutting off views into the apartments for many theatergoers seated on the sides of the auditorium. The amplification system, meanwhile, popped, rustled and cut out.
Carelessly scattered in, a handful of R&B numbers (original music by Robbie Lewis) roused the audience for a few minutes at a time, but little could save the evening as Talbert, also the show's director, stretched three minutes' worth of plot to three hours. The audience, long shifting in its seats, finally fled.
`Love on Lay-A-Way'
Where: Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 3 and 8 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Sunday
Price: $29.50 to $42.50
Contact: (213) 365-3500 or www.ticketmaster.com
Running time: 3 hours