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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Anachronisms and Mysterious Strangers in The Rules, at the Sandbox Series

Posted By on Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Old friends Mehr (Amy Lizardo), Julia (Karen Offereins) and Ana (Sarah Moser) catch up. - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • Old friends Mehr (Amy Lizardo), Julia (Karen Offereins) and Ana (Sarah Moser) catch up.
Dipika Guha’s play The Rules unearths a buried tome only to respond to it with a psychologically incoherent corrective. Over two million people bought a copy of The Rules, one of a series of New Age books that Americans went feverish over in the 1990s. This particular leaflet of self-help blather prescribed behavior for romantically challenged women. For reasons that continue to baffle, readers swallowed gems like these: “16. Don't Tell Him What to Do” and “20. Be Honest but Mysterious.” (This must have been the genesis behind shows like The Bachelor.) The authors’ thesis statement suggests that marriage is a magical state of nirvana that must be attained by any means necessary. Otherwise, the fate of the damned awaits you: spinsterhood.

The television series Sex and the City, which aired from 1998 to 2004, captured a similar sentiment in the zeitgeist. At the start of every episode, Carrie Bradshaw, the show’s protagonist, asked some variation on the theme, “What do men want from women?” and “Do women want to provide it?” But by the time the show arrived at its ending, the characters had evolved beyond questions like that, slamming their Manolo Blahnik heels through the spines of books like The Rules. Those old roles were not only out of place but positively antediluvian when Girls, that show’s spiritual heir, began its run in 2012.

Now in 2016, The Rules only manages to feel like a curiosity, something dusty brought down from an untended attic. The set is the most intriguing aspect of the staging here. Rows of women’s clothing — blouses, skirts, sweaters, dresses — hang from the rafters. With beams of fluorescent lights flickering on and off, all the empty garments suggest a host of ghostly bodies, a sisterhood of silent witnesses. The Laura Ashley collection is represented in a range of the palest pastels. This open-faced closet contains the solid material for a workable metaphor: how women present themselves to the world, what they conceal and what they show, the private self conflicted with her public twin. 
click to enlarge Valmont (Johnny Moreno) and Ana (Sarah Moser) dance. - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • Valmont (Johnny Moreno) and Ana (Sarah Moser) dance.

These scattershot ideas, like many others presented in The Rules, are promising at first but remain undeveloped. The plot follows three college friends who encounter and are seduced by the same man, Valmont. In case you’re unsure if he’ll turn out to be a cad or not, the playwright underlines his moral center by naming him after the villain from Dangerous Liaisons. If he had a more innocuous name like Fred, the audience could still have detected his dishonorable intentions the second he opened his mouth.

And when Johnny Moreno as Valmont does begin to speak, the director lets him down. Moreno shapes his vocal performance the way that Van Heflin did, as if he’s performing in a 1950s melodrama, giving a hard sell to phrases that are empty of emotion or meaning. There isn’t a character attached to this unctuous voice. Valmont’s breathy tones indicate a fatuousness, yes, but an impassioned desirability? No. But this lack of characterization, the main fault of the play, lies within the script itself.

The women refer to Valmont as a “mysterious stranger” who fits each of their individual fantasies of the ideal man. In The Witches of Eastwick, whose blueprint of seduction and betrayal The Rules follows, not only do we believe in the bonds of their female friendship but we also understand why they’re tempted by the same man. Neither is the case in this play. The exchanges between this imaginary man and Ana, Julia and Mehr aren’t believable. The bigger problem, though, is that neither are the conversations between these old college friends.
click to enlarge Julia (Karen Offereins), Ana (Sarah Moser), and Mehr (Amy Lizardo) share their excitement over Ana’s second date. - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • Julia (Karen Offereins), Ana (Sarah Moser), and Mehr (Amy Lizardo) share their excitement over Ana’s second date.
There’s nothing easy, casual or intimate about the way they talk with each other. Sharing a bottle of wine over stilted anecdotes does not qualify as shorthand for friendship. Ana, a teacher, is misconceived; she’s meant to be childish, a barely grown up girl. Sarah Moser conveys Ana’s abstracted petulance and self-absorption with a feigned gaiety and giggle. She says more than once of Valmont, “He gets me.” But so little of her character is revealed that it’s unclear what exactly he’s getting. Since he too appears to be a phantasm, the playwright has constructed a hall of mirrors wherein reflections of reflections are speaking to figures made of glass but never meeting face to face.

Each successive scene ends in an abrupt concussion subtracting narrative sense from the whole. Mehr once had an abusive relationship and she can’t finish things. Why? Julia repeats a phrase about her happy marriage and her reasonable divorce. What exactly preceded her ex-husband’s affair? The Rules is heavy on telling and a featherweight when it comes to showing. The monologues are just that: singular speeches that don’t relate or connect to one another. The playwright may have comprehensible motivations and backstories in the mind but none of them stand up and walk onto the stage.

The play doesn’t offer a rhetorical counterpoint to the original book. This story about the initial rush and sad decline of romance only makes two things clear: Mr. Right is a construct of the imagination and Prince Charming exists in a fairy tale. But it neglects something experiential: when you live with someone every day, year after year, the fantasy and the real slowly merge over time. Two people in love make up the rules of their lives together. They either add new pages to it or burn the damn thing to ash. But nobody else, not even best-selling authors, writes it for them.  

The Rules, through July 16, at San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series, The Creativity Theater, 221 Fourth St., 415-677-9596.

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