Critics tend to internalize their laughter, just as, usually, they do not applaud. The reason is that their yuks may be mocking, their applause merely compassionate, and emit the wrong signals to those misguided enough to search for them. But at Richard Dresser’s Gun-Shy, I was soon laughing out loud: There is enough overarching wit to carry us past the few passages that do not sparkle, probe, and illuminate.
Of course, as in any stylized comedy, the characters are slightly unrealistic. And, of course, a trifle wittier than their offstage counterparts. You could lodge these complaints (made by the Times) as readily against Feydeau and Wilde, Congreve and Molière. But the heightened hilarity is translucent enough to reveal the characters as plausible stand-ins for ourselves. When a husband says to his divorcing wife, “Just because we are breaking up doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” who would dispute her answer, “When I break up with someone, I want them to die”?
The basic plot is of a stunning simplicity. A young-middle-aged couple, Duncan and Evie, split up. She marries a younger man, Carter; he marries the much younger Caitlin, with whom he has been conducting an off-and-on clandestine affair. But the older pair does not really want to part, the younger partners gravitate toward each other, and, at play’s end, Duncan and Evie are alone together again. In short, a Private Lives for our time, except that it is not the Riviera and Paris but the West Coast and the East Coast, and the elder couple has an unseen teenage son. The time difference between the coasts is in itself enough to give rise to some of the funniest lines in a long time, Eastern Standard or Pacific.
Carter, aggrieved by his low sperm count, remarks, “I shoot blanks. I am a few soldiers short of an army.” Duncan soothes Caitlin, who resents that they don’t have at each other as he and Evie used to, with “Anger like that doesn’t happen overnight.” Evie assesses Caitlin for Duncan: “She’s adorable, and you’ve always been good with children.” Caitlin excuses herself for failing to serve the proper food to the visiting Evie: “I’m sorry, I don’t know what older people eat.” Duncan describes Caitlin: “She’s on this death-camp diet.” Evie’s self-defense runs, “Please don’t judge me by what I do or say.” And her formula for a happy marital future? “Keep trying to mold him into someone you want until someone has had enough and bolts.” The play has such a wealth of comic lines that it can afford my giving away these free samples.
What helps enormously is Gloria Muzio’s razor-sharp direction, in which every spark-propelling lunge elicits a similarly fire-breathing parry. Notable, too, is Allen Moyer’s canny set, made up of elegant building blocks in tony colors; reshuffled for every scene, they eloquently epitomize plus c’est la même chose.
Maryann Urbano’s Evie is a playful dolphin that bites like a shark; Jeffrey DeMunn’s Duncan is most evenhandedly exasperated and exasperating; both have exemplary timing. Christopher Innvar’s Carter is sublimely accident-prone, which he endures with heartwarming laments; Jessalyn Gilsig’s Caitlin turns irrationality into breathtakingly balanced upside-down logic. And Lee Sellars handles a number of peripheral parts with protean skill and anything-but-marginal aplomb. Scratch the surface of Gun-Shy’s adorable lunacy, and you’ll find it crazy like a twenty-first-century fox.