Fresh from winning a Tony for his work directing the recent Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, Kenny Leon has returned home to Atlanta this summer to star in a True Colors Theatre production of the two-person romantic comedy Same Time, Next Year (through August 3) alongside renowned actress Phylicia Rashad. Both stars are effortlessly charming in the roles, though the material itself, in spite of the sparks and life the actors manage to bring to it, can occasionally feel flat, predictable and dated.
Bernard Slade’s 1975 play tells of a couple who, though they’re married to others, meet once a year for romantic trysts at an inn in Northern California. The hotel room stays the same, but time marches, and we follow the characters through the ups and downs of 24 years in their lives, as their intimacy and need for each other grows and changes.
Prior to his big success with Same Time, Next Year, Slade wrote situation comedies in Hollywood: he worked on Bewitched and developed The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family. In some ways, Same Time, Next Year is something of a departure from those efforts, but it also feels something of a piece: we’re squarely in the land of 1970s situation comedy, Norman Lear, Neil Simon, and all that that entails.
Although the play focuses on infidelity, there’s an underlying sweetness and gentleness to the tale. We’re meant to like the protagonists, George and Doris, and sympathize with their need for each other, and we do. But the action and dialogue play out pretty predictably, especially in Act I as George and Doris first get to know each other and lay out the groundwork of their relationship.
There’s a stiff old-fashionedness to Act I as they juggle the conflicting values. But Act II gains a lot of energy as the characters develop, and as their development leads them to clash. Rashad does an especially fine job of depicting Doris’ growth: in the second act, the character, who informs George she never finished high school, returns to school and finds it an opportunity for extraordinary change.
Doris’ heightening political awareness, as California in the early 1960s becomes California in the late 1960s, takes on a special resonance (though it’s remained a popular production, this is, incredibly, the first time the show has been licensed to be performed by two African American actors). This is one of the play’s most compelling angles, the story of how enormous political events and struggles in the outside world affect even the most sequestered, intermittent and briefly intimate of personal relationships.
George loses a son in Vietnam and becomes more and more conservative, resentful and embittered, a development in his personality that causes friction in his relationship with the more open-minded Doris. Act II also sees the interesting development of George and Doris being forced to seriously contemplate developing their relationship beyond the annual tryst: Rashad and Leon handle the touch-and-go, half-serious, half-joking shades of the proposition masterfully.
Though it would have been nice to see the two accomplished actors take on something more substantial, if their goal was to tell a winning story with popular appeal, with Same Time, Next Year they’ve certainly succeeded.