Theater Review: ‘Clever Little Lies’ Makes for Big Fun at Guild Hall

The exuberant energy of Guild Hall’s production of Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies electrifies, with Marlo Thomas leading a talented cast through a fast-paced comedy about relationships, hurt feelings and family.

Thomas stars as Alice, a woman who becomes concerned after discovering that her husband, Bill Sr., is keeping a secret from her about their grown son, Bill Jr. (Billy). Billy, a new father, has fallen in love with his beautiful, young personal trainer and wants to leave Jane. Alice, in the comic tradition of overbearing parents making their kids’ problems worse, invites Billy and his wife, Jane, over for cheesecake and coffee. What Alice doesn’t anticipate is that by the end of the evening, Billy and Jane’s won’t be the only marriage in trouble.

Thomas is in fine form in Clever Little Lies, bringing a warmth and pathos to a character that, in the wrong hands, could be grating and occasionally unlikeable. Alice’s actions, well-intentioned as they may be, become increasingly over-the-top as the evening goes on. But Thomas keeps her grounded and concerned, and she plays the role with honesty and believability. Greg Mullavey, as Bill Sr., is a great match for Thomas, often playing straight man to her shenanigans. Mullavey has chemistry with everyone onstage, and truly feels like the patriarch of this modern family. Jim Stanek is given the unenviable task of showing us Billy, a frequently selfish and unfair man who is looking for justification—and permission, really—to have an affair so he doesn’t have to own up to his indiscretion. Stanek lends a vulnerable, almost childlike sense of wonder to Billy, allowing audiences to identify with him and understand where he’s coming from, even if he’s in the wrong. And Kate Wetherhead charms as Jane, revealing a frustration and hurt that goes deeper than expected. Wetherhead and Thomas are great in mother-/daughter-in-law exchanges, and Wetherhead and Stanek have a moving moment toward the end of the play that is at turns bittersweet and cautiously optimistic.

At 90 minutes with no intermission, Clever Little Lies wastes no time getting to the heart of the story and doesn’t slow down once. DiPietro’s script is funny without being silly and unexpectedly serious without being melodramatic. The plot begins to unfold like a sitcom, but wisely and expertly veers into more dramatic territory halfway through. The change is noticeable but not jarring, and the end result is a far more thoughtful, memorable show than expected. Running gags, such as a cheesecake that only Jane seems to want to eat, are sprinkled throughout and add levity toward the end. When the laughs subside and a more dramatic issue emerges, DiPietro doesn’t betray his characters for cheap confrontation and histrionics, allowing them to respond in dynamic, unexpected ways.

The strong performances are complemented by a lovely production directed by David Saint. The set takes advantage of the John Drew Theater’s deep stage, with a detailed and attractive living room serving as the primary set. Other scenes, such as a car ride, are cleverly staged and bookended with the use of smooth, elegant video set to a soft piano score. The actors look very comfortable in the world Saint has built, and the modern, stylish costumes give a good sense of who these people are and where they come from.

Guild Hall has a hit on its hands with Clever Little Lies. With a lighthearted tone, talented cast and slick production design, audiences are bound to have a wonderful time.

Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies runs through August 3 at Guild Hall. Showtimes are Tuesday–Sunday at 8 p.m., with matinees at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 27, and Sunday, August 3. There is no 8 p.m. show on Friday, July 25, and Sunday, August 3. Admission is $75 for prime orchestra, $55 for orchestra and $40 for balcony. For tickets and more information, call 631-324-0806 or go to guildhall.org

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