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Kate Jennings-Grant and David Harbour
in Between Us
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Not long after the two long-time-friendly couples in Joe Hortua's Between Us begin an increasingly tense post-prandial conversation, one of the men says of his latest photography project, "I did a series on children. Playing house. Making dinner. Going to bed. Arguing in living rooms. Smoking. Posed just like adults." And if you think there's any way that this remark isn't a tip-off that the ensuing action is going to be about childish adults failing to behave like mature adults, you've just flunked Show-Wise 101.

Later, in the second act of Hortua's close look at resentments that simmer beneath ostensibly strong relationships, one of the wives says, "This is why I don't like dinner parties. All this baggage. Beneath everything." That comment is almost too easy an invitation for a reviewer to add, "This is why I don't like dinner-party plays. All that baggage beneath everything and it's just about to fly open, spraying soiled linen everywhere."

Within seconds after Sharyl (Kate Jennings Grant), Joel (David Harbour), Grace (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and Carlo (Bradley White) step from the upstage dining room into the spacious living room on Neil Patel's mouth-watering Charles Rennie Macintosh/Frank Lloyd Wright set, host Joel makes a double-edged crack about his impoverished sex life with his hostess wife. The angry advertising man eventually forces a fight with wife Sharyl while old college-tie Carlo and his spouse Grace stand around awkwardly and their newborn child wails upstairs. Oh, yes, Joel is a photographer who's gone into advertising and isn't happy about it. (Could one search through the annals of dramatic literature and find an advertising man who is satisfied with his cushy lot?)

So, here it is 42 years after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and yet another playwright has been courageous (foolhardy?) enough to lift the embattled couple/puzzled couple setup for his own play. Astonishing -- especially after the many other such borrowings during the intervening years. Although it's very late in coming, Hortua does provide some insight and even a little welcome ambiguity. But oh, the playwriting contortions he goes through to get there!

During the first act, as Patel's swanky environment offers any number of architectural distractions, matters continue to deteriorate between the wine-and-scotch-swilling Joel and the hospitable, contained Sharyl, who looks smart in the robin's-egg-blue top that costumer Jess Goldstein has picked out for her. While they tear each other down, Carlo and Grace (she's sexy as hell in a black mini-outfit) attempt to neutralize matters with lines such as, "I like this wine." Nothing helps -- certainly not the information that Carlo's art photography career looks to be taking off as opposed to Joel's career having reached a stultifying if lucrative plateau. When Joel and Sharyl finally turn in, Carlo and Grace are left to reassure each other that they're different. Curtain on Act I.

When that curtain -- designed by Patel to resemble an expensive, mechanized window shade -- rises on Act II, there are some reversals in store for the characters. Hortua has gone out of his way to contrive it that Carlo and Grace aren't so different from what Sharyl and Joel have become. In their Manhattan apartment, which Patel has done a nice job of making distressingly claustrophobic in contrast to the Sharyl-Joel spread, they've fallen on hard times. They've also apparently fallen out of love, and Grace is even having trouble loving the baby that they're barely able to support. All of this comes as a surprise to Sharyl and Joel, who've dropped by to apologize for their performance a few years earlier.

The contrivances continue in that the former combatants have been reformed: Joel is sober, Sharyl has thrown over her lover, and the par are unbelievably lovey-dovey with each other. But while it may be difficult for an audience to accept the characters' 180-degree alterations, their changed circumstances are such that the pros and cons of the compromises Joel has made can now be pitted against the pros and cons of the compromises that Carlo has refused to make. As Hortua approaches his final curtain and plants the possibility of Joel lending Carlo enough cash to pay off sizable outstanding debts, he does offer a certain amount of persuasive truth telling. He also cannily withholds easy answers.

Bradley White and Daphne Rubin-Vega
in Between Us
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Throughout the play, Hortua introduces issues that affect many marriages. The most prominent of these is money, which Joel and Sharyl have in abundance and which Carlo and Grace don't have -- at least, not at a time when they truly need it. The most arresting aspect of Hortua's drama is his understanding of how money or the lack of it affects friendships; it's an unfortunate reality from which he doesn't flinch. He also recognizes the strain that children put on marriages. A secondary preoccupation of his is Catholicism: All four characters are lapsed Catholics and, as a matter of fact, they're discussing a priest's unorthodox attitudes as the play begins. Before it ends, Joel's and Sharyl's religious hiatus is over, and this becomes another point of contention among the querulous quartet.

The cast members, directed by Christopher Ashley in an accomplished departure from his usually comically heightened work, help Hortua by avoiding the familiar while providing the recognizable. With Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Darron L. West's sound design aiding them, they all behave as people do when buffeted by inner demons that they can't expunge or by outer demons that they can't control. At first, David Harbour as Carl seems to have the showiest role since he's the one who's mocking everything around him; he's also getting very drunk, always a fun challenge for an actor.

As Hortua manipulates the emotional seesaw, the burly Harbour is eventually matched by the others. Kate Jennings-Grant flashes a series of those tolerant smiles that women employ when they want to smooth over rough patches; when she's in love again, she works as hard as possible to make the personality switch acceptable. In the calmest part, Bradley White finds nuances that make Carlo attractive and understanding while also proud. The chihuahua-cute Daphne Rubin-Vega, who sometimes seems to be in a play a week, has as many expressions of worry as Kate Jennings-Grant has stiff-upper-lip smiles -- and she puts them to good use. She also has a defiant stare to unleash in a crucial scene late in the play.

In Between Us, Hortua seems to suggest that when there are unspoken ill feelings among people, anything that happens between them is potentially controversial. This is not an unworthy notion, but it's too bad that the playwright takes such a well-traveled route to his destination.

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