John Cariani and Nicole Alifante in cul-de-sac(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
John Cariani and Nicole Alifante in cul-de-sac
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
John Cariani intends the title of cul-de-sac (all lower-case letters, very chic) to mean two things: the literal enclave where his three youngish married couples live and keep surreptitious track of one another, and the metaphorical dead-end into which they've driven their stagnating relationships. As the playwright unfolds this dark comedy, the title acquires an unfortunate third meaning: the cul-de-sac into which he writes himself.

Johnson, Smith, and Jones are the surnames of the three couples living in this suburban cul-de-sac, which Sandra Goldmark has designed with streamlined efficiency and R. Lee Kennedy has lit with a nod to Dan Flavin's eerily warm phosphorescence. These monikers signal what Cariani is up to: He's presenting a materialistic world in which keeping up with today's acquiring Joneses is of paramount importance. The play consists of a series of two-handed exchanges in which the problems besetting the couples fill the air with an acrimony that is only relieved by occasional, uncertain declarations of love. These marrieds long to regain what they used to have; their theme song could well be "You've Lost That Loving Feeling."

Jill and Roger Johnson (Robyn Hussa, John Wellman), Christy and James Smith (Monica Russell, James Weber), Irene and Joe Jones (Nicole Alifante, John Cariani himself) all order pies from the same pizzeria presided over by someone called Sal but, otherwise, they have slightly different concerns. (It's interesting to note that, bucking an enduring contemporary trend, all three women have taken their husband's names.) Jill and Roger, who are childless, no longer excite each other, while Christy and James have been stymied since Christy misplaced their son during a shopping excursion at a local mall. Both couples spy on the Joneses, whom they assume are having a peachy-keen time of it because there are not one, but two dazzling new automobiles in their driveway.

The Spoiler Brigade might bridle at the rest of this sentence, because it contains the suggestion that Irene and Joe -- a seemingly perfect team, dancing together in the privacy of their home -- may not be as untroubled as they appear to their nosy, paranoid, envious neighbors. But if anyone watching this piece hasn't sniffed out at least an outline of the shocking Jones development in advance, I've got a bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn that I'd like to sell him or her at a very reasonable price. Yes, one can see the revelation coming a mile away and an hour early. One can also guess the moral lesson it will teach: Keeping up with the Joneses may not be the wisest way to conduct your life. (Preachers in need of a subject for next Sunday's sermon might want to take note.)

The tedium that slowly but irreversibly sets in as cul-de-sac swallows its 90 minutes is especially disappointing in that dramatist Cariani is a talented writer. He's on to something in what he implies about the effect that today's self-involved marrieds have on their children; in some way, each of the couples scants the next generation. The author also proves his skill in the truth of the conversations that he allows the audience to overhear, but the problem is that these people carry on far too long for dramatic tension to hold. To an impressive extent, Cariani confirms the prowess evident in Almost, Maine, the series of amusing, related sketches about love among a rural crowd that premiered only a few months ago. Had he noticed that the duologues making up cul-de-sac are also no more than sketches and kept them down to sketch length, he would have had a succinct, much more effective play.

Director Jack Cummings III might have helped Cariani more in the editing department but he certainly picked the right actors for the play, all of whom look very nice in Kathryn Rohe's J. Crew/Old Navy-type attire. Cariani and Alifante quite nicely keep up with the Joneses they're impersonating, especially when kicking up their Yuppie heels to a rather lively instrumental version of "Sentimental Journey" that's piped in for obvious reasons. (No sound designer is credited, but Michael Kochan composed the stentorian original score.) Tall, husky Weber and short, plumpish Russell commendably capture the stultifying anxiety afflicting a couple bereft of a child. Wellman is rightly puzzled as Roger Johnson, a man coming home from a hard day to discover that it's about to get harder.

Last but hardly least is the beautiful Hussa, a founder of the always intriguing Transport Group. She's got a strength and naturalness about her that's wonderfully appropriate for the socially liberated if psychologically chained Jill Johnson. Incidentally, all six actors deserve nods for the long patches of stage time during which they're required to sit more or less stock still and silent while others speak. It's a dirty job, but they do it very well.

In its own way, cul-de-sac is reminiscent of two Edward Albee works, A Delicate Balance and The Play About the Baby. Indeed, it could almost go by the latter title. But there's another venerable show-business artifact that it conjures: The Bickersons, an old radio series written by Philip Rapp and starring Frances Langford and Don Ameche. For more than 600 half-hours, the fictional husband and wife bickered about anything and everything. (They were doing it for laughs, of course.) John Cariani's cul-de-sac is a post-modern Bickersons that overstays its proper half-hour.