ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Stage Door Players wring life, laughs from venerable “Same Time, Next Year”

Review: Stage Door Players wring life, laughs from venerable “Same Time, Next Year”

Bryan Brendle and Cara Mantella carry the show in "Same Time, Next Year."
Bryan Brendle and Cara Mantella play longtime lovers, who get together every February, in Stage Door Players’ "Same Time, Next Year."

In tackling Bernard Slade’s bittersweet “Same Time, Next Year,” Stage Door Players does something not easy to do — bring life to a decades-old play that can feel dated and familiar in less responsible hands.

Slade’s comedy, written in 1975, is about a love affair stretched out over more than 25 years. We first meet George (Bryan Brendle) and Doris (Cara Mantella) in bed after an unexpected night together in a Northern California hotel room in 1951. He’s an accountant who does his friend’s books this time every year, and she’s a housewife in town for a Catholic retreat. Both are married with children, although details aren’t disclosed at first.

George feels guilty; Doris is more relaxed about the tryst, especially after yelling into her towel for much of the morning after. After a weekend together in and out of the sack, the two agree to meet annually at the same time and place. Every fifth year afterwards, we see them come together for their romantic weekend in February, and every time they are at different places in their lives. But one thing remains the same: they share “best of” and “worst of” stories about their unsuspecting mates back home.

“Same Time, Next Year,” playing through April 8, isn’t a show with any kind of major payoff or devices. It’s old-fashioned and straightforward: one set, two people, and character-driven dialogue. Slade’s intelligent script changes the dynamics of the relationship over time. At first it’s lust and puppy-dog attraction, George slathering attention all over the delighted Doris; eventually it becomes more about affection and kinship than sexual acrobatics.

As directed by Tess Malis Kincaid, the play puts heavy demands on its cast of two, who are on stage virtually the entire time. They age 25 years each, deal with emotional issues involving their families back home, and grow and change.

It’s clear early on that these performers are at ease with each other. (Both were part of the cast of “Mauritius” at Actor’s Express a few years back.) Both Brendle and Mantella have crack comic timing to boot. “He has a body like Mark Spitz, but a face like … Ernest Borgnine,” Doris quips about her husband, resignation coloring her face. Both performers age successfully enough, emotionally and physically, although George’s changes over the decades amount mostly to a few tufts of gray hair over the ears.

Mantella, who first made a splash locally in the Alliance Theatre’s “Doubt” in 2008, has become a dependable character actress. She is certainly engaging and energetic here. Hers is the flashier role — Doris goes from being pregnant and going into labor in the hotel room, to a sexually frank hippie phase, to finally becoming a steely businesswoman. Even without the big belly or the costume changes, it’s subtle work as Doris moves from being a flighty 20-something who never finished high school into capable and confident middle age.

Brendle is a capable actor and frequently charming, but not quite his co-star’s equal. He doesn’t have the same level of emotions or depth that she can summon. He holds his own for much of the play, but can seem a little mismatched when he and Mantella go at it.

“Same Time, Next Year” became a 1978 movie with Alan Alda and a radiant Ellen Burstyn, reprising her Tony Award-winning role, which felt more fleshed out and alive than the play. Onstage, even with the zippiest performers, its episodic nature can feel repetitive. The stage version still holds up, even with cobwebs across it, but certainly not the way it used to.

Kincaid, arguably Atlanta’s most versatile and reliable actress, often steps behind the scenes to direct. She has given her performers plenty of room to work and improvise here. What she and her crew do quite convincingly is convey the times and moods, from the costumes, by Jim Alford, to the music of each year depicted.

But pacing isn’t this production’s friend. Scenes can drag, and the scene changes — as we prepare for each new encounter and a stagehand carefully prepares for the next scene — can feel interminable. What “Same Time, Next Year” has working in its favor most are two hard-working performers. If it can feel a little slow and a little safe, Mantella and Brendle make it palatable.

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