- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

Love hurts in “Wintertime.” It also bellows, slaps, howls, yammers and stomps.

In Charles L. Mee’s high-impact aerobic discourse on the nature of lasting love, the physical aspects of the red-hot emotion are brought out in ways usually reserved for the World Wrestling Federation or a particularly vitriolic episode of “I Love Lucy.” Doors are slammed repeatedly with virtuoso exuberance, crockery and glasses are hurled with abandon, and actors ricochet off the set like buckshot as they become demented by love.

You need a score card to keep track of the entanglements in Mr. Mee’s frisky farce, but the central idea is one that has been employed in romantic comedies from “A Little Night Music” to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Throw a bunch of disparate people together in wacky circumstances and see what happens.

The scene is a lakeside summer house cloaked in snow and ice (James Kronzer’s set is an arctic gasp of winter white and silver) where three pairs of lovers have arrived hoping to steal a little private time. Young Jonathan (Eric Sutton) envisions a cozy getaway with his naive and sentimental fiancee, Ariel (Vanessa Vaughn), but they find their love nest is already overrun with his mother, Maria (Naomi Jacobson), clad in a peekaboo black corset and matching stockings, and her smarmy French lover, Francois (Jerry Whiddon).

The cringe factor ratchets up when Jonathan’s father, Frank (John Lescault), shows up with his lover, Edmund (Timmy Ray James). The rash of couples is completed by the presence of two lesbians next door, Bertha (Catherine Flye) and Hilda (Norma Fire). In the course of the evening, a few others pop in — Bob (Mark Alan Gordon), a delivery man who is an expert on Greek philosophy, and Dr. Jacqueline Benoit (Melissa Flaim), a physician who slides down a snowbank to deliver the news that she had a racy affair with Francois a while back and has never forgotten it.

In this discourse on desire, all revolves around the tempestuous and enchanting Maria (expertly played by Miss Jacobson with a selfish fire that recalls another Maria — Maria Callas), who seems to rouse extreme emotions and jealousy in every male around her, whether he be lover, husband, son or husband’s homosexual lover.

It is the need to please her, placate her, engulf her, that drives Maria to pull a stunt reminiscent of the first-act shocker in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale.” Maria, like the true diva she is, flings herself into the lake, and the second act is largely a thrown-together memorial service in which the others regret whatever part they had to play in her desperate act. Somehow, the transformational magic of love penetrates even these self-obsessed characters, who are given a second chance at romance. First, though, they have to rend their garments.

One rarely sees garment-rending these days, and director Lou Jacob plays the novelty angle to the hilt, giving us the high emotions you would find in, say, “Antigone,” with the naughty surprise of a climactic moment in a bedroom farce. The characters strip down to their undies, which reveals their true clownish selves, and it is a show-stopping moment, eclipsed, so to speak, by a finale in which everyone moons the audience and one another.

Not many playwrights can get away with low comedy combined with talky, billowy speeches on eros (which the playwright defines as the desire for something that’s missing or lacking) and whether it is possible for humans to stay in love over time. Mr. Mee, though, pulls off this dichotomy with verve and originality.

There is plentiful physical humor, an operatic outpouring of anger that reaches crescendos of frustration where words (thankfully) fail the characters and they must resort to primal screams and grunts.

Mr. Jacob adeptly balances the extremes that “Wintertime” demands, keeping the hurtling movements of the actors as quick and sharp as the speeches and the diatribes on Greek mythology.

You also need a confident, audacious cast to make “Wintertime” sing, and Round House has assembled a wanton lot, ranging from Miss Jacobson as the uberpassionate Maria and Mr. Sutton’s pitch-perfect rendering of a foot-stomping man-child to Mr. Whiddon as the hilariously garrulous Francois and Mr. James as the petulant lover Edmund. The goofy camaraderie and cross-talk between Miss Flye and Miss Fire alone is worth braving “Wintertime,” as is Mr. Gordon as the laconic yakker Bob.

For all of its dialogue and clothes-ripping emotion, “Wintertime” does not come to any neat conclusions about the messiness of love. Yet the glorious talk and the sheer physicality of the piece give it rapacious, gulping energy.

***WHAT: “Wintertime” by Charles L. Mee

WHERE: Round House Theatre, East-West Highway at Waverly Street, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 29

TICKETS: $29 to $39

PHONE: 240/644-1100MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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