We as a society love rom-coms for their cozy predictability and comforting familiarity, because sometimes all you really want is pure escapism with a happy ending. Usually, the more cheesy tropes, the better.
Audrey Cefaly attempts to tap into this tradition with her play Maytag Virgin, now playing at Bryant Hall and produced by Theatre Three. However, some of the cliches she clings to in the overly long two-hander about grief and longing aren't necessarily the ones we're craving.
The premise is textbook meet-cute — at first. Recent widower Jack (Ian Ferguson) moves in next-door to newly widowed Lizzy (Tiffany Solano), and both discover they're employed as teachers by the same Alabama school. But while Jack is moving into both his new home and new classroom, Lizzy is on an extended leave of absence after her husband's sudden passing.
If this sounds like a bit of a bummer the more you think about it, well, it is. And it gets even darker. Not everything is as it seems with Lizzy, Jack, or even Jack's new house, which was previously occupied by an elderly man whom we're led to assume died of a broken heart after his wife's death (both in that house, by the way).
This unrelenting funeral march of exposition happens right at the top, with Lizzy even exclaiming, "Oh no! I brought death into your front yard — twice!" when she comes bearing a freshly baked pie as a welcome.
But don't worry, because Lizzy is a quirky gal with Southern charm who adores knick-knacks and snooping into other people's business. She's adorkable! And so darn quirky!
Jack, in comparison, is the strong, silent type who's more at home working with his hands than exploring his feelings. He even plays the guitar.
Under the direction of Whitney LaTrice Coulter, Ferguson and Solano walk a delicate line between Deep South caricature and complex human beings. In fact, it's some of the best acting I've seen from both performers, and it's even more impressive given that their characters appear, on paper, so predictable.
Because Cefaly's script continually crashes the budding romance these rivals-turned-friends are gently building. Just as Solano begins opening up about her confusing past — a dead husband is just the start — she is suddenly turned into a psychotic shrew at the sight of Jack's Maytag dryer still residing on his front porch.
It's as rote a plot device as an ex-girlfriend turning up at the rehearsal dinner, and feels like drama for drama's sake. Lizzy, you see, has never used a dryer, and doesn't believe in them. What a quirky gal!
As a year passes, signified by flipping branches like a giant book on the centerpiece tree (the only part of Jeffrey Schmidt's set design that doesn't work smoothly), the pair's tension dissipates as it becomes obvious they will fall in love.
But the actual moment is tainted by infuriatingly lazy writing that boils down to:
"But I'm so ugly."
"No, you're beautiful."
"But I'm crazy."
"I love you anyway."
If you guessed that Lizzy is the one doubting her entire self worth, congratulations. You've won a Maytag dryer for your front porch.
Theatre Three's production of Maytag Virgin runs at Bryant Hall through February 20.