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Autumn Sex Comedy

In the small New England college town of David Wiltse's A Marriage Minuet, which opened at Florida Stage last week, egocentric male novelists suffer from a limited number of venues to rant about Hemingway or flirt with woman fans. Yes, college lecture halls are good for expounding on art, and bookstores are ripe with leggy female fruit. But these sites aren't enough, it seems. So living rooms also become prime ranting and hunting grounds and wives, increasingly, become fair game.

Male writers aren't always the most graceful people when it comes to romance (not that women writers necessarily fare any better). They often live their lives inside their books, and when they don't, as A Marriage Minuet shows, they might be out cruising for flattery or, at the very least, anonymous sex.

Rex (Stephen Schnetzer) and Douglas (David Mann) represent two ends of the world-of-letters spectrum — the smarmy, best-selling hack and the pompous, literary bore. "I'm yoked to literature like Prometheus to his rock," Douglas proclaims like the high-brow caricature he is.

Their wives, though, also represent spectrum ends, at least in affection for their husbands. Rex's wife Violet (Kate Levy) is wry and aggressive, air-kicking her husband's backside when he's not looking. Douglas' wife, Lily (Laura Flanagan), is coy and lovingly sarcastic. "I love it when he speaks in paragraphs," she laughs about bombastic Douglas.

None of them are fully content as they set out on Marriage Minuet's funny romantic romp. While Douglas, the tightly wound literature professor, delivers puritanical lectures on high morality, amoral best-selling author Rex is out scamming every girl in sight. Eventually they'll eye each other's wives, or vice versa, and spend the quick second act deliberating the morality of adultery. If Edward Albee's George and Martha are the starting line-up of college-town dysfunction's varsity team, then, welcome to the JV squad.

Florida Stage's production of A Marriage Minuet is the maiden voyage for David Wiltse's play, which was first introduced as part of the theater's 2005 New Voices play-reading series. A Connecticut resident but Nebraskan by birth, Wiltse already has a full mystery novelist's career behind him even as his playwriting career steams ahead, often focusing on favorite topics of sex, romance, and miscommunication between men and women. Most recently, though, Wiltse wrote about a German professor providing haven for a Jew during World War II. Florida Stage produced his The Good German last year.

A Marriage Minuet is a bookish play, in a good way. Its set is an accommodating background of bookshelves and cubbies with an overhead screen displaying titles for fast-moving scenes — Noel Coward meets PowerPoint — that change with the on-stage snap of fingers or flash of a laser pointer. For example, "The Rake's Progress. Scene: A Bookstore."

With nods to the long tradition of manner comedies, the play has self-consciously taken the genre to a different plane with a clever structure that layers dialogue with narration and the overt revelation of subtext feelings to wittily replace the pat words expected from characters. "Never give them a chance to change their minds," Rex narrates during a seduction of the Girl (played by Autumn Horne). When the Girl recognizes Rex from his book jacket photo, she fawns, "Oh, generic attraction to celebrity," instead of offering sycophantic cover dialogue to represent her feigned sense of awe.

This sharp mixing of overt dialogue with unearthed subtext sweetly dominates the play's first act. In "Conquest. Scene: The Girl's Bedroom," Rex will narrate during sex, "Give me a screamer every time," to which the Girl will then scream, "Will. This. Never. End," and then later confess about Rex's lax performance, "What do you expect for a trophy fuck." Overall, it's a sly and smart in-your-face take on classic drawing room romantic comedies. And all of the players work beautifully in interactions deftly directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, flown down from Connecticut where she is artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

Yet, there's also a rub. None of the actors' right-on performances can make up for the play's awry crossover into its second act. The coiled spring of the first act's fun, with all of those clever dialogue devices, seems to collapse under the weight of its own cleverness. After intermission, the play moves along hastily, sustained in its mirth by residual laughter carried over from before the cigarette break. All of the brilliant, comic deliberation of the first hour comes to a sharp halt in a quick, epilogue conclusion. You get the sense you're being shooed away before your theater hosts reveal what they're really getting at with all of their initial, rich literary moral conjecture and bravado. It's all funny, but, in the end, it feels unfinished.

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Dave Amber

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