Theater Review: “Faithful Cheaters” — Delightfully Frenzied Farce

This thoroughly cockamamy world offers the kind of guilty pleasure that you hope never ends.

Faithful Cheaters by Deborah Salem Smith. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Staged by Trinity Repertory Company at the Dowling Theater, 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI, through May 21.

Stephen Thorne as Theo and a surprise actor in a bear costume in Deborah Salem Smith’s Faithful Cheaters directed by Melia Bensussen at Trinity Rep.  Set design by Cristina Todesco, lighting design by Daniel J. Kotlowitz, costume design by Olivera Gajic. Photo Mark Turek.

Stephen Thorne as Theo and a surprise actor in a bear costume in the Trinity Rep production of “Faithful Cheaters.” Photo Mark Turek.

By Mary Paula Hunter

Put together a tightly constructed comic script, masterful direction, a wonderfully messy set, and terrific performances and you’ve got Faithful Cheaters, Trinity Rep’s winning world premiere production. In the absurdist comic tradition of Joe Orton and David Lindsay-Abaire, Trinity’s resident playwright Deborah Salem Smith makes expert use of crazed farce to explore thorny contemporary issues.

The crises at stake are no less than the competitive and insecure world of scientific funding, the instability of marriage (both homosexual and hetero), our inhumane treatment of wild animals while at the same time revering out pets and, as the title implies, the relative importance of truth telling. Yes, it’s a dizzying array of emergencies, but Salem Smith keeps all the powder kegs at a hilarious crackle.

Set at a little midwestern lake in Michigan around which there is a ramshackle property for sale, Faithful Cheaters makes great use of the usual outdoor hazards — bugs, raccoons, and bears — while also digging into the world of the real estate boondoggle.

New to Trinity Rep is American Repertory Theater stalwart Karen MacDonald, who plays scientist Nance Stevens, married to Anne Scurria’s Marion Stevens. The pair are the teeter-tottering ying and yang at the center of this story of deception writ both small and large. Nance is an uber uptight scientist who frantically sprays at mosquitoes; she never leaves the house without a can of DEET. She can’t resist the flighty and sexually exuberant Marion, who sashays and boogies around the hyper stiff Nance.

Poppy (Rebecca Gibel), their physician daughter, longs for some spontaneity; her life has become much too predictable. Her most recent episode of infidelity is the source of all the script’s wild miscues and mishaps. Stephen Thorne, playing her failing researcher husband, is the hapless foil for her various manic attempts to hide her romantic dalliance. What’s apparent from the get-go is that these two are tangled-up for life. You root for the couple as it is led, via a very rocky road, towards a reconciliation that might, perhaps, lead to a new path.

Secondary characters like Phil (Mauro Hantman), a dental hygienist who escapes Flint on the weekends to live a back-to-nature life style that includes bacon, a strobe light, and lots of skinny dipping, and Butsy (Charlie Thornton), Poppy’s old boyfriend, heighten the hilarity as they engage the main characters in dizzyingly dialogues in which everyone operates on a different understanding of what’s exactly going on.

Thorne, as Poppy’s clueless husband, is a very talented physical comedian. His stiff-legged walk, after he wedges himself into some very tight shorts, is something to behold. And, though the sight gags pile up and up in Faithful Cheaters, director Melia Bensussen has a choreographer’s eye for nimbly transitioning the action from one crazy mishap to the next, adroitly mining the opportunities for the mayhem presented by the staging’s two-tiered set. By the time Butsy takes an uncannily realistic pratfall in a bear costume, this thoroughly cockamamy world has become the kind of guilty pleasure you hope never ends.

Final note of praise: Olivera Gajic designed the fun-house costumes that zestfully amplify the chaos.

Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces.

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