Patricia Kalember and Douglas Reesin A Marriage Minuet
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Patricia Kalember and Douglas Rees
in A Marriage Minuet
(© T. Charles Erickson)
In Julius Monk's 1950s revue Take Five, a satirical song called "Westport' included this lyric: "He caught her in the kitchen playing Westport/A game indigenous to suburban life/Where you take a wife of whom you're not the husband/While someone else's husband takes your wife." It's tempting to think of David Wiltse's A Marriage Minuet, now at the Westport Country Playhouse, as a two-act elaboration of the impertinent ditty -- especially when the opening of acts one and two include choreographer Peter Pucci's version of a minuet and a gavotte, just as they might have been staged in a bygone Monk opus.

However, while the Monk version sticks to the nitty gritty --"'Til he caught her in the kitchen playing Westport/Between the washing machine and thermostat" -- Wiltse stuffs his remarkably trying treatment with way too many oh-so-cute exchanges, pretentious outbursts, and arch asides. In addition, he has written a couple of bombastic men -- one a literary novelist, one a commercial novelist -- who would try the patience of an intensive-care-unit nurse.

The slightly more prominent of these philandering buffoons is Douglas Zweig (Douglas Rees), who produces supposedly beautifully crafted works from which no one reads during the run of the text but which, if they're anything like their author, would probably sound self-conscious and lifeless. Douglas has a wife called Lily (Patricia Kalember) whom he loves but with whom he's ceased to get it on. The Zweigs know a couple they don't particularly like but see out of social obligation, Rex Franklin (Doug Stender) and his wife Violet (Deirdre Madigan). Rex is a womanizer -- the objects of his incessant womanizing are all played by Suli Holum, who's kept busy changing into and out of Markas Henry's thigh-revealing costumes -- but eventually the two couples do the so-called marriage minuet. Not surprisingly, their experiences are largely unsatisfying.

While the Zweig's household is altered by the play's finale, Wiltse clearly wants to titillate middle-class suburbanites but doesn't want them unduly riled or more nervous about their situations than they were when they arrived. As Lily puts it, "Flirtation is just a harmless little gavotte, done in seconds with a smile and an innuendo. No one is hurt by it." It's anyone's guess whether Wiltse really believes this.

As he's making his blunted point, Wiltse has his characters spout lines that aren't conversation, but are thoughts and responses addressed to the audience through the collapsed fourth wall. For instance, at the top of the play when Rex encounters the first of his young targets in a store, he says "Ingratiating chit-chat," while the young woman responds, "Total lack of interest." Wiltse continues this conceit until he sets a spectator's teeth on edge.

In addition, Zweig spends much time at a lectern addressing an unseen class in which a student called Cohn-Bertolli is habitually caustic. The professor's retorts, however, come off as more trying than witty.

While there's little director Tracy Brigden, Rees, and Stander can do to leaven the men's unlikeabilty, she's luckier with the ladies. In part, it's because it's obvious that Wiltse simply likes women better than men. As for the actresses, the naturally pretty Kalember is naturally amusing and Madigan has the play's funniest moment when she lets go an unexpected scream.

During A Marriage Minuet, legends appear on an overhead screen to introduce each scene. Near the end, one reads, "Nudge the husband, it's almost over." Unfortunately, these words are all too welcome.