Sweet & Sour

Excellent performances can't rescue the food-sex recipe in About Time.

About Time Presented by Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue Through January 18, 216-321-2930
About Time for a good script: The story can't - keep up with the Silvers' acting chops.
About Time for a good script: The story can't keep up with the Silvers' acting chops.
As most adults are aware, one of the more pleasant byways of sexual activity involves the incorporation of foodstuffs into the act of kissing, stroking, licking, and other boinking-related activities. While some may prefer a well-buttered ear of corn, others a deftly placed drizzle of melted Swiss chocolate, only the most desperate would choose to enhance their sweaty grappling with a cold tub of sour cream. Yet this is what playwright Tom Cole has his elderly couple do in About Time at Ensemble Theatre, a two-character play that attempts to illuminate the pleasures and perils of a long life together, but which only truly succeeds in giving us another occasion to watch two superb local performers ply their wares.

Dorothy and Reuben Silver, under the able direction of Joel Hammer, turn in tremendously subtle and amusing performances in the service of an overlong, lazy, and none-too-perceptive script. And other than delving into the unexplored genre of geriatric food-sex games, this play has little in it that is original and almost nothing that resonates after the final curtain.

The two folks in question, retired and living in a condo unit, evidently roll out of their Craftmatic every day and spend the rest of their time in the kitchen, carping at each other about who's going to pour the coffee and what the latest misery is in The New York Times. As any longtime pair might do, they play verbal tricks on each other while each laments his or her own state of decrepitude. The gentleman's health is sliding downhill fast, while his wife grouses that it takes her twice as long to do anything -- such as chopping the vegetables for her hubby's meals.

All this seems appropriate enough, but as the conversations ensue, we become aware that these two people are oddly detached from conventional behavior -- but not in an interesting way. They launch into intellectual duels, citing philosophers, composers, poets, and other cerebral bric-a-brac in an attempt to win points in a game the audience never understands. Also, they never speak each other's names (if they even have names; the characters are called He and She in the program). While they do have grown children, who never call enough, there's no clue about what these two did in the past. Were they college professors or just culturally sophisticated transit workers? In a more skilled playwright's hands, these eccentricities might be intriguing, but here they are just irritating.

Then, in a rather obvious attempt by author Cole to be edgy, He and She decide to interrupt their banal, ritualized arguments and give each other oral sex with the aid of the aforementioned dairy product. (What, they've never heard of plain old sweet cream? Or that good old standby, Reddi-Wip?) No, they just proceed to suck frigid sour cream off each other's digits and then hotfoot it into their bedroom for a little mid-morning delight. None of this is particularly believable, but thanks to the sprightly renditions and gag-free swallowing of globs of sour cream by the Silvers, it all seems diverting enough (although you may never look at a richly dolloped, wrinkled, twice-baked potato the same way again).

Unfortunately, despite yeoman efforts by the Silvers, the second act devolves into a collection of disjointed events and unlikely reactions. She's still wafting along on her post-Elsie high, while He wants dinner served, rants about the shortage of water in Africa, and pouts because she won't let him have a TV in the kitchen. Is he borderline delirious because of his approaching appointment with the Grim Reaper, or is it just indigestion? Who knows? Then the power goes out in the middle of the night, emotional eruptions occur, and the phone finally rings -- and it's . . . the kids! The play goes on at least 20 minutes too long, and there are more dangling threads left behind than on double-shift day at the tassel factory.

In About Time, the playwright attempts a stylized ode to the pangs of a shared life that is coming to its inevitable conclusion. But he commits cardinal sins by telling instead of showing (She says, at one point, that she fears her husband's death more than her own; we could have figured that out ourselves) and by including some weirdly anachronistic details. In a play set in present time, why would He be reading a Times editorial about "desegregating the schools" and "busing"? And why is He crabbing about the impersonality of answering machines as if it were 1975?

It's a tribute to Reuben Silver that he manages to make his character much more than a puny pronoun. And Dorothy Silver would be worth watching if she were reading random sentences from a grammar textbook -- an exercise, by the way, that might exert more dramatic pull than this script.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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