Lost in memories in The Lady and the Clarinet

Michael Cristofer’s play “The Lady and the Clarinet” is less a straightforward romantic comedy and more like a mysterious chocolate candy. The outside is sweet, but the inside is bitter the more you chew — and by the end you’re not sure if the outside was really chocolate to start with.

Mr. Cristofer earned a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier play, 1977’s “The Shadow Box.”

“The Lady and the Clarinet” dates from 1984, and was at one point an off-Broadway hit for Stockard Channing. Director Maggie Mixsell has resurrected the play and brought it to Santa Barbara City College’s Jurkowitz Theater for a three-week run, where it becomes a star vehicle for its leading lady, Katie Thatcher.

“The Lady and the Clarinet” plays as a sort of lover’s reverie in triptych, with a successful businesswoman, Luba (Katie Thatcher), waiting in her spacious New York apartment for the arrival of her dinner date. In the meantime, Luba is visited by the three ghosts of relationships past, as she muses out loud on love to a mostly silent clarinetist (the very game Jocelyn Tipple) she has hired for the dinner. Of these memories made flesh, the first is Paul (Kellen Vanetti), a business partner of her father, who a teenage Luba initiates into sex. Next is Jack (Drew Murphy), a harried (and married) TV executive who seeks out Luba for a fling and refuge from his midlife crisis. Finally there’s George (Jon Koons), a rich widower who can cook and clean but who can’t give Luba the love she so desperately desires.

When not directly in the action, Luba stands apart and comments sarcastically. She also stage-directs her memories, telling the clarinetist to “play something sad” during the breakup scene, or to play something upbeat soon after.

Mr. Cristofer’s play is a breezy but cynical concoction. The lines crackle with weary wit. Luba isn’t just revisiting these memories now; these are scenes she has played back in her head thousands of times, until the emotion is distanced and the characters predetermined to fail. Paul comes across as a naive tool, Jack as an anxious man standing on the crumbling foundation of his own masculinity and George as masculinity inverted, happily domesticated. Luba rises above all this, but she rarely lets herself to be taken down into it; if these are the three main loves of her life, as she tells us, then she must not get out much.

Katie Thatcher carries the show effortlessly; we are never left in any doubt that Luba controls the proceedings. Early scenes where Ms. Thatcher must play a teenager and Kellen Vanetti is meant to play someone slightly older than his youth suggests, are a bit awkward. Mr. Vanetti is all high-pitched nerves and gulped air; his transition to sexual initiate isn’t as complete, but his pathos at being stood up later is earned.

Things start to cook with the entrance of Jack, especially a well-timed sequence on the phone with his wife: Luba fills in the replies from afar with a sharp tongue. Drew Murphy invests Jack with enough desperate energy to make dynamism and desperation seem two sides of the same coin.

Jon Koons’ George delights in his role as the house husband, but it’s also here that Mr. Cristofer’s play becomes the most like a sitcom. The lines are funny, but they’re not delivered to communicate — they’re delivered to get chuckles from the audience.

Director Maggie Mixsell’s hand is assured throughout. But Mr. Cristofer’s play too easily allows the male characters to subject themselves to Luba’s vision, and Luba’s strength is such that all three men begin to feel unnecessary. The play is all breakup and no romance.

Patricia L. Frank’s set and lighting design is yet another high-class production; you could almost rent out the space as a studio apartment if it weren’t for that missing fourth wall. The design is pure overpriced condo, pre-“Miami Vice” era. All that’s missing is the Nagel prints. Carolyn Vega’s costumes do the job, particularly in George’s non-threatening cardigans and khakis. Luba’s black velvet dress is rather formless and not necessarily flattering, but perhaps that’s the point.

There are many laughs in Mr. Cristofer’s comedy, but a bleak hopelessness underlies the ending, where Luba is yet to open the door to welcome a possible future Mr. Right. Luba hasn’t forgotten her past, yet she still feels condemned to repeat it.

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