Marlo Thomas in Clever Little Lies at George Street Playhouse.
Marlo Thomas in Clever Little Lies at George Street Playhouse.
(© T Charles Erickson)

Since the early '70s, musical theater buffs (or at least Stephen Sondheim fans) have been operating under the theory that "it's the little things you do together" that make for marital longevity. In the spirit of progress, playwright Joe DiPietro is now testing out a competing theory of his own, suggesting that maybe a few Clever Little Lies between spouses are what truly keep a couple bound for eternity.

Though DiPietro is no stranger to the world of musicals, having picked up two Tony Awards for his work on the 2010 tuner Memphis, he has decided to present his observations in the simpler form of a drawing-room comedy, served with a refreshing tinge of drama that puts some additional meat on its bones. I can't say he drills as close to the molten core of love and marriage as Sondheim in Company, but for a light night at the theater, his sharp wit and poignant insights will leave you feeling comfortably satiated.

Marlo Thomas headlines the four-person cast (directed by George Street Artistic Director David Saint), shouldering the heft of the play with graceful strength and a biting sense of humor. She plays Alice — wife to Bill, Sr. (Greg Mullavey), mother to Bill, Jr. (Jim Stanek), and grandmother to Bill, Jr.'s new baby daughter. Her greatest talent is drawing private information out of her withholding son and husband, so after Bill, Jr. confides in his father a secret about his extramarital activities, it's only a matter of time before Alice's maternal antennae start twitching. The moment she senses trouble, Alice invites her son and his wife. Jane (Kate Wetherhead), over for an evening of coffee, cheesecake, and subtle interrogation.

DiPietro paints Alice with a lovably neurotic brush, introducing her with a breathless rant about technological advances and the imminent demise of literature. Thomas, however, keeps a shrewd air about her, reassuring us that no matter how far into the ether she spins, there is a fire of grounded wisdom lurking behind her eyes. Though small in stature, her large presence makes for a perfectly understated comedic foil for Mullavey, who depicts Bill, Sr. as a man for whom "Yes, dear" has clearly become a fundamental marital philosophy.

As soon as Bill, Jr. and his wife (sleeping baby in tow) enter his parents' beautifully manicured living room (designed by Yoshi Tanokura), long-hidden secrets come fast and furious and both marriages' shiny façades begin to rapidly tarnish. Wetherhead delivers a strong performance as Bill, Jr.'s "plain Jane" wife who is sadly oblivious to her husband's extracurricular shenanigans. Though her character often smacks of the stereotypically weak, nagging housewife, Jane — like the kindred spirit she finds in Bill, Sr. — manages to remain an endearing figure.

Bill, Jr. is the only character of the four who lands somewhat flat. If the George Street ushers were to offer patrons complimentary fruit baskets, Stanek would need to be hosed down by the end of the performance. I suppose this speaks to the effectiveness of both DiPietro's dialogue and Stanek's performance in his unlikeable role. However, the most intriguing aspect of the play is its surprisingly convincing argument that deception may, sadly, be one of the essential cogs in the wheel that keeps a marriage spinning. Stanek's one-dimensionally-unsympathetic delivery makes this a much harder sell.

While Bill, Jr.'s behavior, unarguably, is both immature and immoral, we need some reason to continue to root for him and his wife to make it to their golden anniversary. Fortunately, Thomas and Mullavey give us all the reasons we need to leave feeling the conflict DiPietro set out to construct. As their own secrets are unearthed after decades of supposedly happy marriage, it becomes difficult to conclusively say whether the strongest relationships are built on a foundation of honesty or just a web of clever little lies.