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Theater Review: “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!”

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“You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!,” is the inaugural presentation at the beautiful new Penn’s Landing Playhouse – at the Independence Seaport Museum on the Philadelphia waterfront – and it’s more than worthy to hold that distinction.

Adapted from a 2010 book by the same name and produced by the same folks (Phillip Roger Roy and Dana Matthow) who gave us such theater fare as “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m In Therapy!,” this snappy stage show offers a comedic look at the pitfalls and plateaus the average married couple goes through. “You Say Tomato…” was co-written by real life married couple

Kahn and Gurwitch plug their book "You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!"

Won’t the real Jeff Kahn and Annabelle Gurwitch please stand up! Please Stand up! Please Stand up!

 

Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn  really nail the way a couple of technology-reliant, repressed and emotionally incapable adults express the way they feel about each other in this day and age.

First off, you may be familiar with Gurwitch’s name from… well… a number of different projects. Most likely, you’ll know her as the Head Anchor on HBO’s “60 Minutes” style parody of yesteryear, “Not Necessarily the News.” Maybe you’ve seen her as host of the TBS pseudo-instructional show, “Dinner and a Movie.” Either way, she’s a pretty accomplished actress/comedian/writer, as is her husband Kahn.

You might recognize him (and I stress “might”) from a few “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” bit roles in such films as “Tropic Thunder” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” However, like his wife, he’s had a pretty proficient career as a writer with such credits as The Ben Stiller Show and “Dilbert.”

Well, enough of their credentials already. All you need to remember is this: the two of them are married in real life and the two of them wrote an 80-minute comedic stage show in order to commemorate their love – no matter how strange and unorthodox the proceedings might get.

The events of this two-person play take place at an unnamed restaurant on the couple’s 10th anniversary (the characters have the identical names of the playwrites – i.e.: Anabelle

Robin Abramson and Gregory Johnson have an anniversary in "You Say Tomato..."

Not the real Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn… so stay sitting down.

Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn, duh). The restaurant setting, complete with tables, chairs, plates and silverware, never changes throughout the whole play. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t SOME flashbacks that bestow the audience with a few clever anecdotes and bits of prevalent information to fill in the gaps of their dating history, but like I said, all of this is done on the exact same set.

I’m not saying this takes away from the humor, because (like so many other comedic plays) the dialogue is the important item on the menu here (pun intended), not the backdrop. If you’re looking for elaborate stage sets, glitzy pyrotechnics and striped, 80’s-style unitards, then go see “Cats” and say hi to Grizabella, Mr. Mistoffelees and the Rum Tum Tugger for me. If you’re looking for witty and introspective observations on the nature of companionship and the human condition in general, then come see “You Say Tomato…” and say hi to Annabelle and Jeff.

Both the roles of Annabelle and Jeff have their own unique and charming outlook on life. Jeff (played by the tall and slender Gregory Johnstone) is definitely the more romantic of the two, with a strong belief that fate has played a part in their meeting and marrying. Jeff’s idea of the perfect union is “somewhere between ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’” In fact, he remembers their first date to be the most romantic moment of his life…

… while Annabelle (played by wide-eyed sparkplug Robin Abramson) barely remembers it. While he is completely positive that fate is the reason they have come together, she considers the whole thing (their five-year courtship was a string of near-misses and wasted opportunities – “She hops in her Honda and drives away” is repeated at around four separate occasions by Jeff)) a coincidental affair. Being the more practical of the two, Annabelle utters, “Poetry is nice, but you can’t raise a family on a metaphor.”

Although the two of them bicker, bitch and moan (in a good way) on stage about quirks and tics and pet peeves, the fighting never reaches critical mass. Jeff always

Abramson grabs Johnstone's ear in "You Say Tomato..."

Come ear you! (get it? Instead of “here,” I said “ear.” Awesome, right?)

maintains a playful tone in his voice, even when he’s apparently pissed, while Annabelle is forever sporting a smirking smile, like she’s never ready to go the extra, Hulk-like mile that it takes to be REALLY ANGRY at another human being. This simple, yet important, fact keeps the audience at bay and prevents them from reaching that level of discomfort when you think something is going terribly wrong – right in front of your very eyes.

The writing is smart that way and the play goes a long way because of it. It never loses its entertainment value for the sake of poignancy. It’s as if Gurwitch and Kahn knew that “their life” was simply “their life” and just the fact that they wrote a play about it already lavished ENOUGH attention on them. Therefore, they didn’t feel the need to add-in any unnecessary drama, tragic moments or science fiction space disasters in order to validate themselves or keep the audience riveted. Basically, it’s amusing because it’s easy to relate to. Anything more would be unwarranted.

I must warn you though – this play has frequent use of metaphors. I’m just saying, some people don’t like ‘em. For example, there’s a whole section that compares the moments before sex, when it’s essential not to “ruin the mood,” to a field full of mines. This section definitely has the most special effects and lighting cues in it, as every landmine stepped on is accompanied by explosive sound effects and flashing strobes. It’s actually one of the more creative segments in the play and both actors (especially Johnstone, as he stealthily traverses the booby-trapped stage with his cat burglar-esque gait) do a great job selling it.

One of my favorite scenes, involves an argument about “friending” the opposite sex on Facebook. Now, I found the dialogue between the two extremely realistic and a very appropriate and accurate representation of what the dating scene is like during this age of social media. However, as I was walking out of the theater after the curtain descended, I noticed that a number of elderly patrons in the audience had a hard time following this particular segment, due to the fact they had no idea what “friending” was.

This could cause a slight problem by putting up a wall between certain age-gaps, but I guess that’s just par for the course these days. Technology moves fast and I’m even guessing that this particular play has gone through numerous rewrites in order to keep up with the ever-changing times.

For the most part, the dialogue falls into the category of observational humor, which

Abramson and Johnstone smooch it up in "You Say Tomato..."

Shame, shame. I know your name.

maintains a pretty consistent balance of funny and reflective. However, I can’t describe the total package as being “laugh-out loud” funny. It’s more along the lines of “chuckle to yourself” funny. The problem here is this: there are a fair number of jokes that seem to fall flat, which include way too many fart jokes, plus a few pop culture references that don’t quite work. For example – one of the pet-names Jeff has for Anabelle is the “Sheriff of No-ing-ham”… ummmh… which, I guess, means she always says no to him… I guess.

That being said, even though the play isn’t exactly a “laugh riot,” it does make for a tremendously entertaining night at the theater. So, in the end, I guess it’s more like a “laugh pillow fight” than a “laugh riot.” But, if you want to watch two people bring up a bunch of thoughts about relationships that’ll make you say, “Damn, I know what they mean,” WITHOUT holding your spouse or significant other TOO accountable, check out this comedic caper. As an extra, added bonus, they do sell these awesome red, squishy, “Tomato” stress balls for a buck in the lobby concession stand. So, that’s pretty cool. Just DON’T throw them at the stage if you’re in the minority and NOT having a good time…

… because that’s just rude.

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