Nicholas Hormann, T. Scott Cunningham, Marsha Mason,Michael Cerveris, Brienin Bryant, and Christopher Denhamin Wintertime(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Nicholas Hormann, T. Scott Cunningham, Marsha Mason,
Michael Cerveris, Brienin Bryant, and Christopher Denham
in Wintertime
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Snow falls lightly onto Andrew Lieberman's gorgeous winter wonderland of a set. Thin white birch trees, snow covered walkways, white couches with white fluffy pillows, and a fireplace enclosed within a glass box dominate the stage. The boundary between inside and outside is blurred as snow falls everywhere. Even before the show begins, audiences are brought into the magical world of Wintertime, Charles Mee's quirky meditation on love and relationships, which is currently receiving its New York premiere in a handsome production at Second Stage Theatre.

The play has the setup of a farce: Jonathan (Christopher Denham) arrives at his parents' summer home in the winter so that he can spend a romantic New Year's weekend with his girlfriend Ariel (Brienin Bryant). Unfortunately for the couple, Jonathan's mother, Maria (Marsha Mason), is already there with her paramour, Francois (Michael Cerveris). Making things even more complicated is the arrival of Jonathan's father, Frank (Nicholas Hormann), and his male lover, Edmund (T. Scott Cunningham). Add a lesbian couple from next door (Marylouise Burke and Carmen de LaVallade), a doctor making house calls (Tina Benko), plus a man named Bob (Danny Mastrogiorgio) who comes by the house to deliver an unwanted composter and you have all the right ingredients for a comedy of epic proportions.

Wintertime is that -- and more. Mee's writing is richly poetic and often uproariously funny. The playwright also slips in some philosophical thoughts on love, such as the observation that "what Eros means is a desire for something that is missing, and once it is no longer missing, you no longer have the desire." The speech is used to explain why love just simply cannot be sustained; it's presumably derived from Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet, which Mee cites as a primary influence on his play.

The couplings and uncouplings in Wintertime occur with dizzying frequency and a shifting focus that would seem to lead to confusion but never actually does so. This is partly due to director David Schweizer's light, whimsical touch and keen attention to the interpersonal dynamics of the characters. As each pair of bickering lovers takes center stage, the others are often left to stand in amazement as their own troubles are momentarily pushed aside.

Schweizer is blessed with an incredibly game ensemble cast that seems ready for anything. Mason is fantastic as an earthy Italian-American woman full of zest and contradictory attitudes toward love and faithfulness. Cerveris, speaking in a cartoonish French accent, elicits peals of laughter with his portrayal; while somewhat stereotypical, his role is more complex than is initially apparent. Marylouise Burke is the most consistently funny cast member while T. Scott Cunningham brings the most depth to his character. He also gets to say my favorite line in the show: "I love you like a cicada."

In addition to Lieberman's gorgeous set, the other technical elements serve the production well. Kevin Adams's lighting design plays off the white surfaces of the stage environment beautifully. Sound designer Eric Shim's soaring operatic selections enhance the larger-than-life aspects of the play. Costume designer David Zinn seems to have eschewed a strict adherence to realism: Jonathan wanders around in a short sleeve shirt for most of the first act despite the supposedly freezing temperatures and a number of characters go traipsing through the snow in scantily clad ensembles and bare feet.

Clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, the play could use a bit of judicious editing. The opening scene of the second act, in particular, goes on a little too long; actors sit for such an extended period that they start to fidget.

Judging from some of the intermission chatter and the number of empty seats during the second act on the night I attended, it's clear that Mee's humor is not tailored to everyone's tastes. But those who are willing to give in to the charm of the playwright's off-kilter views on life and love are sure to be rewarded. The characters have connections and reconciliations aplenty, even if they may not last.