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For Better

[This review appeared in Variety the week of November 18th.]

Baby boomers may have the notion that the cultural gap between themselves and their parents was the widest in history, but the asymptotic progression of technology, as evidenced in Eric Coble's romantic comedy, For Better, makes a strong and humorous case for their children—bred on email, instant messaging, cell phones, and text messaging—being as remote from them as they were from their folks.

Like all successful satirists, Coble's métier is to capture peculiar social phenomena and play them out to their logical and absurd conclusions, as we witnessed in The Dead Guy (To what extreme will people go when paid by a reality TV show?) and in Bright Ideas (To what extreme will upwardly-mobile parents go to get their kids into the 'right' school?).

In For Better, Coble makes hay with the effects of electronic communications on romance, intimate relationships, and marriage. At the center of this dance is Karen, who has spent more time talking with her fiancé, Max, via wireless media than in person. (BTW, Max never does appear on stage, not that this interferes with events.) Her software-challenged father, Wally, can't understand their virtual on-again, off-again engagement, while her older sister, Francine, criticizes her rashness even though she met her own husband through an online dating service.

In helmer Chip Walton's clever staging, the intricacies of overlapping calls, three-party conferencing, and concurrent IMs and emails are clarified by Michael R. Duran's half-dozen, staggered metal frame platforms, from where the characters vocalize their typing, texting, and electronic conversing. Cross-hatching with six characters never sounded so good and made so much sense.

Coble's players mix sane and grounded with goofy and ditzy as they attempt to balance business travel, loneliness, and a sense of family. Walton's choice to stylize the performance within the bounds of realism keeps the issues relevant.

Lisa Rosenhagen as Karen
Lisa Rosenhagen as Karen
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Lisa Rosenhagen's Karen alternately brims with girlish effervescence and cowers in nagging self-doubt, as she rides the rollercoaster of love while holding down a demanding job. Still, her practicality manages to bridge old and new world protocols, as she arranges for Max to call via cell phone to ask her father for her hand.

Jim Zeiger as Wally
Jim Zeiger as Wally
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Jim Zeiger radiates warmth as Wally, a widower deeply attached to his two daughters, his befuddlement with things that go beep serving as an amusing bridge to the ancient, pre-Internet world sans personal mobile communication devices.

Dee Covington as Francine
Dee Covington as Francine
Photo: Michael Ensminger

Despite the freewheeling nature of virtual culture, precautions are necessary according to Francine (Dee Covington), who asks her husband Michael to investigate Karen's beau. Covington's Francine draws from her work as a traveling corporate pollster to lend matter-of-fact legitimacy to the narrow range of mass-produced opinions and ambitions she helps promulgate.

John Arp as Michael
John Arp as Michael
Photo: Michael Ensminger






In contrast, her husband, Michael (John Arp), suffers no such limitations in his personal and business relationships, taking solace wherever he may find it, as in the electronic arms of Lizzie (Rhonda Brown), an old flame he contacts to carry out the investigation. Arp and Brown make this rekindled chemistry sizzle via IM, leading to the principal heart-to-heart, face-to-face confrontation in the play, between Michael and Francine, facilitating the comedic resolution of the story.

Rhonda Brown as Lizzie
Rhonda Brown as Lizzie
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Arp's consummately smarmy, silver-tongued satellite dish insurance salesman's pitch, drumming up user fears over interrupted programming, is one of several sharp monologues in which Coble captures the addictive and fear-laden qualities of consumerism. For her part, Brown finds just the right balance point to lend the illusion of sense to Lizzie's challenging logic, her comedic knack matched by Ed Cord's Stuart, a lost soul engineering wireless systems in the third world, who has held a torch for Karen since high school.

Ed Cord as Stuart
Ed Cord as Stuart
Photo: Michael Ensminger
With few exceptions, Coble's writing remains economic, replete with witty lines that, if not wholly cathartic, give pause over the role that electronic communications play in our lives. That the characters manage to find their way back from the brink to celebrate the possibilities of love earns the production its titular recommendation.

Curious Theatre Company's world premiere of Eric Coble's For Better runs through December 15th. 303-623-0524 or online at www.CuriousTheatre.org.

Bob Bows

 

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