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Tasha Lawrence and Judd Nelson in He She Them
(Photo © Jeffrey Dunn)
TV actors get no respect -- and after suffering through He She Them, an insipid romantic dramedy at the Shubert Theatre, it's easy to understand why. Whatever could have possessed Judd Nelson (the Brat Packer seen most recently as Suddenly Susan's boss) and Tasha Lawrence (a Third Watch regular) to take on this 70-minute bout of cliché ping pong?

The plot, if it can be called that, concerns the travails of a middle-aged mover and shaker named Daniel as he woos Lyla, a colleague who's the married mother of a two-year-old. But the real story here is the back story, and if there's a moral, it's that middle-aged men shouldn't be allowed to watch daytime TV lest they get it in their heads to concoct a do-it-yourself Jenny Jones episode. In this case, the middle-aged man is first-time author Irwin M. Heller, a successful businessman/lawyer who happens to be a trustee of the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, which operates the Shubert.

It's hard to fully describe the deadly format of this exercise, in which the audience is asked to serve as collective confidant and tribunal. (Daniel and Lyla have ostensibly decided to solicit advice from a panel of strangers.) Heller offers a nonstop parade of relationship babble that's meant to pass for dialogue; lines like "She made me laugh," "Dan reactivated my sense of passion," and "You are in love with the idea of love" would be howlers if they weren't intended and delivered in earnest.

Flashbacks are interpolated to convince us that the couple's passion was on a par with that of Anna Karenina but, really, Jackie Collins would feel right at home here. The pair seem as enamored of the brand-name trappings of their illicit love life -- trysts take place at a Four Seasons and a Napa Valley hideaway identified as belonging to Relais et Chateaux -- as with each other, perhaps because they're ciphers facing pro forma crisis. When Lyla turns to the audience and implores "I could use your help" for the umpteenth time, one is tempted to shout: "Honey, take the money and run!"

It's Lawrence who's required to do all the heavy emotional lifting. Perhaps daunted by the sheer accreted weight of so many tired tropes, she ultimately resorts to crossed arms and an increasingly whiny voice. (She starts out with a nice, sexy rasp). Nelson appears to be an adherent of the "point and shoot" school of Hollywood acting: Point both index fingers for emphasis and shoot off a supposedly significant line. Both actors are clearly capable of more but, ultimately, they should be held accountable for signing on to perform such poor material.

The one glimmer of good news is that this is the Wang's first foray into fulfilling a new mission to use the Shubert occasionally as a "black box" setting in which to develop new plays. (Even with the stage converted to a thrust setup and the seating limited to 700, it's not exactly intimate.) However, this initial outing represents the waste of a good director -- Steven Maler, who brought a stupendous Macbeth to the Boston Common this summer -- and assorted other talents.

You know a play's in deep trouble when the most interesting aspect, the part you begin to look forward to, is the music played during the scenery-moving interludes -- here, J Hagenbuckle's mournful urban riffs. Howl on!

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