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Losing Louie, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre

Losing Louie, the comedy by Simon Mendes da Costa that's about to close at the Manhattan Theatre Club, was a strange show, in that I laughed all the way through it and then felt like an idiot. The moment the curtain came down, I felt that I'd been made to sit through a something dredged from the Seventies. There were plenty of good lines, but in the context of the completed performance they withered with age. Why the play's problems didn't obtrude until it was over remains a mystery to me.

As long as Matthew Arkin and Mark Linn-Baker were emoting on stage, I could buy their angry half-brother routine. It was almost cute. When it was over, though, it was suddenly just acting. The actual brothers whom they'd been impersonating didn't seem very real to me, because they were too much the product of Plotting.

The action takes place in a Pound Ridge bedroom, in both the Early Sixties and the present, in a scenes that alternate between the periods. This an interesting device, because not only does it double the narrative and, with that, the climax, but it offers the opportunity to wash the later action in irony. By revealing, in the denouement of the earlier story, that the relationships between the characters in the later story are not what we or they think it is, the playwright can give his show a neat double take. Mr Mendes da Costa, does not sneak up to us with any surprises, however. Long before Bobbie Ellis (Rebecca Creskoff) leans over the bassinette and coos, "Reggie, Reggie, Reggie," we know that the relationship between the middle aged Tony (Mr Linn- Baker) and Reggie (Mr Arkin) are closer than most adoptive brothers, because they share a father, the late lamented Louie (Scott Cohen). Memo to Mr M de C: Tell us something we didn't see coming before it sailed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!

That must have been what it was. As long as the play held out the hope of a surprise, the shtick worked. So long as the relation between the two story lines remains unclear, the characters - at least the later ones - are somewhat provisional, and we can tolerate a certain glossiness. But when the events of the past turn out to be a series of clichés - a husband cheats with a family friend, conceiving a child, while a six year-old son is under the bed; the son tells the wife and she loses the baby she's carrying; the family friend gets married to someone else, but still loves the husband; the friend has a baby, only to find the wife very attached to it; the friend is killed in a car crash and the husband and wife adopt the baby - then the antics of the later action, in which the sons are brought together by the husband's funeral, together with their very different wives, amount to little more than so-so sitcom. Tony has married an oomph girl, Sheila (Michele Pawk), while Reggie's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Kalember) is coldly chic and professional. The women try to get along, but can't quite keep their claws in. The men fight openly. Who was the favorite son, do you guess? The six year-old tattletale (and, it's constantly hinted, sissy) or the love child?

This will sound like damning praise, and perhaps it is, but Losing Louie would make a great high school play. It calls for sharp acting skills, and it's full of audience-pleasing lines. Its lack of dramatic heft would be overlooked in the excitement of youthful theatricals. At MTC, however, where the comedic norm is set by Alan Ayckbourn, it creaks like a Neil Simon vehicle in which the danger of seeming "too Jewish" has been assiduously skirted. The story is probably Biblical in age, but the funny accent that it has been given is pure Norman Lear.

The actors aren't the only talented people who through themselves into this musty project. John Lee Beatty (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes) did their customary best. Paul Gallo's lighting was effective, as was Dan Moses Schreiber's sound. And Jerry Zaks directed. All quite surprising. (November 2006)

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