WINTER PARK — It’s the holiday season during the opening of the musical “I Love My Wife,” and Monica is excited. She’s
gearing up to finish her shopping, but decides to take a break at a local café. That’s where she bumps into her friend Alvin. In fact, Monica and her husband Wally are so close to Alvin and his wife Cleo that they plan to spend Christmas Eve together, with Monica serving up a big turkey dinner.
But it’s also in that café that Alvin notices Monica is reading a magazine — and, more importantly, she’s taking a sex quiz to learn more about her attitudes on that racy subject. Alvin, who harbors a secret crush on Monica, is intrigued. But his curiosity is really piqued later when Wally shows up, and expresses no concern whatsoever about Monica taking a sex quiz. In fact, Wally notes, he and Monica are free to date whoever they want, no strings attached, and Wally himself brags about how he once lived in a commune with two women. He encourages his pal Alvin to consider doing a bit of swinging himself, by encouraging his wife to consider having a three way with another woman.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the musical is set in Trenton, N.J. in the 1970s, the post-60s era when people began to shed traditional social values that had started to feel constricting and antiquated, and were ready to explore. Alvin heads home, and finally works up the courage to ask Cleo to consider having a three-way. At first she seems horrified — then warms to the idea. Wouldn’t it be exciting, she suggests, if they had a sexy three-way — with another man?
Alvin is not pleased.
“I Love My Wife,” the musical comedy written by Michael Stewart with music by Cy Coleman, had its premiere in 1977 and is now being revived by The Winter Park Playhouse. Very much a period piece with “time capsule” written all over it, the show satirizes the sexual revolution with tongue firmly planted in cheek. In fact, Stewart may have been inspired by director Paul Mazurksy’s 1969 movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” about two couples getting involved in group therapy, followed by free love and wife swapping. The Mazursky movie, though, often veered off into a fairly sour and moralistic drama (with a very downbeat ending), while “I Love My Wife” has the good sense to play it entirely for laughs, especially when Alvin lets Wally know he’s convinced Cleo to experiment with another couple, and Wally knows exactly who that couple should be. Since Alvin and Cleo are coming to his place for Christmas Eve, Wally notes, he and Monica will give them a swinging time after turkey dinner.
Now he just needs to tell Monica about the plan.
“I Love My Wife” is probably the funniest production that the Playhouse has done in a while, and not necessarily because of the play itself, since Stewart mainly focuses on setting up a farcical situation (with a nice debt to French farces of yester-decade) than in fleshing out the characters. But none of that matters much here. Under the direction of Michael Edwards, the Playhouse’s version excels through the very rich comedic talent of a great cast.
There’s no better moment to illustrate that concept than the scene on Christmas Eve when Monica and Wally exchange gifts — and they both absolutely hate what they got. Of course, neither wants to hurt their spouses’ feelings, so they strive to be diplomatic. The setup is so old that normally it wouldn’t generate much more than a polite chuckle, but in the hands of Heather Alexander (Monica) and Michael Colavolpe (Wally), it’s wildly funnier than it should be. They’re both experts at using facial expressions and body language to register the agonizing discomfort they’re feeling in getting such awful gifts, and as a result the predictability of the material works in their favor. You know what’s coming, and it’s a riot when the performers deliver.
Alexander, the Playhouse’s executive director, has an amazing arsenal of comic expressions and ticks to play off, and she has a glorious moment when she ruins their turkey dinner in a simmering rage over their swinger plans.
Colavolpe does smart and smarmy characters to perfection. He’s brilliant as the sophisticated, hip guy with a lecherous sneer dying to break out of his grin.
And Shawn Kilgore (Alvin) and Natalie Cordone (Cleo) look like they’re having a blast playing a couple of old-fashioned “Joisee” kids who think it would be amazing to get really naughty — but have no idea how to do that.
The production also benefits immensely from the four musicians — Sam Forrest on drums and percussion, Glen Goodwin on bass, Christopher Leavy (also the show’s musical director) on piano and Ned Wilkinson, a superb multi-instrumentalist who goes from guitar to banjo to violin and flute. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus, occasionally commenting on the action, and they’re also wonderful singers.
This is a real belly-laughs show, but for my money, I give the bulk of the credit to the Playhouse actors, musicians and production crew rather than the script. In the hands of lessor talent, I could imagine the warm smiles and polite giggles that would result — kind of like inviting old friends you grew up with in the 1970s to get together at your place, drink some beers, and watch old “Three’s Company” episodes.
In the hands of the Playhouse, “I Love My Wife” is a comical tour de force.
The production runs through Aug. 21 at the theater at 711 Orange Ave., Suite C, in Winter Park. Call 407-645-0145 for information and reservations.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..