When you think classic sitcoms and those iconic sitcom couples, generally who spring to mind are the likes of Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane, Paul and Jamie. In Best Medicine Rep’s production of “America’s Sexiest Couples” by sitcom writing veteran Ken Levine, audiences get a nostalgic glimpse of what may have happened to a Sam and Diane or a Paul and Jamie once the studio audience disappeared and the spotlights dimmed.
…a wonderfully surprising delight.
“America’s Sexiest Couple” catches up with the one-time stars of a TV show called “Residents,” Craig McAllister and Susan White, a.k.a. Jeff and Jill. Jeff and Jill were apparently the Ross and Rachel of their day. And, as happens to the best of us, time, age and gray hair seem to have caught up with the super hot 90s era duo. They reconnect at a funeral of all places. A fellow cast member has passed—the memory of whom will play a pivotal role in both deescalating some of the sexual tension of their reunion and yet ultimately, bringing the pair closer. You’ll have to check out the show to see how exactly.
The entire play consists of a single scene that takes place in Susan’s Syracuse, NY hotel room. Within the 90-minute timeframe, Craig and Susan, as well as to some extent their alter egos Jeff and Jill, run the gamut of the kinds of emotions one would expect of a reunion of this nature. They haven’t seen each other in 25 years, so you can imagine the ground that needs to be covered. Taking a cue from just about every sitcom in which the stars’ will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic inspired viewers to tune in week after week, the characters of Levine’s play take the audience on their own emotional, albeit hilarious, rollercoaster ride of love.
Both know how to deliver a barbed zinger with the best of them, and both understand the importance of turning on the charm to avert a potential meltdown. Everything from Viagra, to eggplant emojis, to the infamous dual bathtub Cialis commercial get mentioned as Levine’s script cleverly overlays a sense of “what is” atop a fondness for what was. The play’s primary concern however is with the characters as they are now. Is the chemistry still there? How will the close quarters of a Marriott hotel room influence their decision-making? Will the looming specter of a “Residents” reboot bring them closer, or will it be the nail in the coffin of this relationship once and for all?
The actors do a tremendous job of sustaining the hour-and-a-half-long scene and keeping audiences invested in the emotional and mental vicissitudes of the characters as they embark upon a complex and still somewhat predictable reunion arc. But that’s the thing. Those 80s and 90s sitcoms thrived on predictability; they were famous for the half-hour neat and tidy ending. Levine does throw in a few modern-day twists and turns to perhaps force viewers to think about context here a bit differently. John Morogiello’s portrayal of Craig is a home run. He’s the perfect blend of arrogant aging star, caring and dependable confidante, and typical sex-starved guy. Morogiello’s comic timing brings Levine’s script to life. Perhaps the funniest moment of the show is when Craig tries to “play” Susan’s lecture off by singing the infamous awards show send-off music.
For her part, Kari Luther plays Susan as truly multi-layered: vulnerable, strong, defiant, a bit manic at times, and ever the consummate comedic actor. She is every middle-aged woman, worried about fading looks, the possibility of ever finding someone to love, and the purpose of life once the audience is no longer there. Luther convincingly draws the audience into her theatrical truth circle, as with her, you wonder why it is that Nicole Kidman does get all the good roles for women of a certain age. Luther emerges as the emotional anchor of the performance.
The only disruption to what would otherwise be a two-hander is the occasional entrance of Fletcher Lowe’s Bellboy. Lowe proves the perfect contemporary foil to 90s era nostalgia. He does a spectacular job of prompting the 40+ crowd to growl at him and his fellow Millennials to ask, “why are 90s sitcoms (and their stars) still relevant?”
Director Kathleen Barth expertly transforms what could easily (in less talented hands) turn into a blurry mess of a she loves me/he hates me dialogue into a wonderfully surprising delight. Ninety minutes go by almost too quickly. The light/sound and set design by Morogiello do everything they’re supposed to do to harken a middle-of-the-road Central New York Marriot.
Best Medicine Rep’s mission explains that comedy is that which makes us think and makes us forget. This performance accomplishes both superbly. In the end, you really do root for Craig and Susan/Jeff and Jill to make it in both TV Land and in real time.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Adult themes, mature language, depictions of sex.
“America’s Sexiest Couple” runs through January 29th, 2023 at Best Medicine Rep, located on the lower level of Lakeforest Mall, 701 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg, MD. Tickets are available online. Masks are required.