‘Same Time, Next Year’ tickles funny bone despite dated, sitcom-like format
By Bob Abelman
While clearly not Actors’ Summit’s intention, it is impossible to sit through Bernard Slade’s “Same Time, Next Year” and not feel as if you’ve just binge-watched vintage sitcoms on Nick at Nite.
The play’s comedy and simple, predictable storyline spring from the friction created when lovable opposites attract, which was a popular ploy in Golden Age sitcoms like “Bridget Loves Bernie” (1972-73), about Catholic and Jewish newlyweds, and “Bewitched” (1964-72), about a mortal man and his witch wife.
In “Same Time, Next Year,” George and Doris sleep together and fall in love after a chance meeting at a country inn in Northern California. The two characters have fundamental differences in nearly every facet of their lives, including their education, their religion and the level of guilt they feel while cheating on their spouses. And yet the two agree to return to the exact same location — another sitcom convention — for one weekend each year to pick up where they left off.
The play also shares the episodic structure of shows like “The Flying Nun” (1967-70) and “The Partridge Family” (1970-74), where unique installments of storytelling involving the same characters unfold but do not really change the characters or the lives they lead.
“Same Time, Next Year” unfolds in six vignettes of the annual meetings between George and Doris, which span the years 1951 to 1975. And while the two characters broadly and comically reflect the specific decades of their meetings, each vignette ends in true sitcom fashion: where they began, with George and Doris very much in love and racked with guilt.
There’s also the same fast pace and excessive number of laughs-per-minute found in standard sitcoms like “The Girl with Something Extra” (1973-74) and “Love on a Rooftop” (1966-67).
And in the bedrooms of those shows, as in George and Doris’ bedroom in this play, sex may be discussed but it is never seen or heard.
These many parallels should come as no surprise considering that the playwright spent 17 years as a writer for network television. He wrote each of the sitcoms cited above before penning this play, his first, in 1975.
Shortly after its success on Broadway, “Same Time, Next Year” became a film starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. But the play’s content and cultural context quickly grew outdated and productions have been largely limited to dinner theaters and cruise line cabarets. What was once a hip and risqué contemplation on ‘70s morality and mores has become a period piece targeted at those who lived through the Eisenhower administration.
And yet Actors’ Summit’s production is extremely funny. In fact, it received from the opening night audience the one thing that is standard issue in vintage TV sitcoms but was not provided by the playwright: a laugh track.
The audience laughed loud, long and often, and deservingly so.
One reason is the direction provided by Paula Kline Messner, who earned four Emmy Awards for her work as a writer/producer/actor in television. She has a great ear for the kind of comedic cadence this play requires, which is nicely executed by actors Keith Stevens and Natalie Sander Kern. Their timing is superb.
But while Stevens and Kern embrace the sitcom tendencies of the material, they also work hard to add a layer of authenticity and spontaneity to the broadly drawn caricatures they’ve been handed. Clever one-liners flow from their lips as if they were normal discourse and punchlines are never punched so hard as to leave a mark.
The show’s design team of Perry Catalano, Fred Sellers, MaryJo Alexander and Kevin Rutan create an attractive and era-appropriate world for this play. But while the actors’ costumes and wigs change with the times and for comedic effect, the bedroom’s furnishings and artwork do not. This lack of attention to detail, whether by design or oversight, calls unnecessary attention to the archaic blackout sketch quality of the material and its time on the dinner theater circuit.
While the situation in this romantic comedy no longer strikes a nerve, the play still manages to hit the funny bone.
WHAT: “Same Time, Next Year”
WHERE: Actors’ Summit, 103 S. High Street, Akron
WHEN: Through Feb. 7
TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $33, call 330-374-7568 or visit actorssummit.org.
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on January 24, 2016.
Lead image: Natalie Sander Kern as Doris and Keith Stevens as George. PHOTO | Bruce Ford