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Lust’s Labors Lost

Mee’s bedroom farce mines the comic angst of adultery 

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in The Village Voice, 24 Feb. 2004.


T. Scott Cunningham and Marsha Mason in Charles Mee's Wintertime. Photo: Joan Marcus.

T. Scott Cunningham and Marsha Mason in Charles Mee's Wintertime. Photo: Joan Marcus.

When Augustine remembers his dissolute, pre-Christian life inConfessions, he describes how he desired only to love and be loved; his “impulses of puberty” were blind to the “difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness.” In Wintertime, Charles L. Mee peoples the stage with similarly blind figures who trip over themselves and their adolescent needs and jealousies. Although Mee exposes lust’s darkness to the light of comedy, he seldom allows the audience to forget that something serious lurks beneath the laughter. A patina of gentility and carefree sexuality flakes away to reveal wounded feelings and loneliness, but director David Schweizer doesn’t linger over the pain of isolation until the play ends.

With a deftness that few contemporary American playwrights are capable of, Mee toys with traditions of bedroom farce, making them all his own. Instead of playing extramarital hide-and-seek,Wintertime introduces six lovers, three of whom are unabashedly unfaithful. Frank and Maria’s son, Jonathan, has brought the girl of his dreams to his parents’ second home for some private, romantic reverie; his parents, unbeknownst to each other, have made the same plans with their respective lovers. The marriage of Frank and Maria has been open for years: Frank enjoys a male partner, Edmund, while Maria shacks up with Francois, a stereotypically priapic, vain Frenchman who joyously strips down to his bikini-bottomed underwear for anyone who cares to watch. In spite of supposedly tolerant attitudes toward sexuality, resentments erupt, verbal and physical combat ensues. A door-that obligatory feature of bedroom farce-is wheeled out with fanfare for a brief collective tantrum of slamming.

On the pretext of throwing a New Year’s party with a Viking theme, the play’s last scene features all the lovers wearing cuckolds’ horns. In the final moments, the bittersweet tone crescendos with an emphasis on the bitter, as most of the couples head off to bliss but leave the father behind, deserted by wife and lover. “You think if you had your life to live over again, you could make it turn out right,” he says, but “for some of us, it turns out to be exactly the same no matter how many chances we get.”

Schweizer has directed the play as if afraid of its being too heavy. He needn’t have worried. Mee’s interest in history and ideas anchors the humor but doesn’t sink it. The real threat comes when the characters’ insubstantiality translates into superficial acting. Too often, the cast fails to give us a sense of depth, but as anyone knows, lust may focus on surfaces, but its anguish is palpable far beneath.

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