Count on MSU Theatre Department’s Rob Roznowski to skillfully direct a perfect play that captures the zeitgeist of America. As the nation remains divided by traditional versus liberal values, “A Contemporary American’s Guide to A Successful Marriage © 1959” captures and skewers post-World War II domesticity and provides commentary that remains valid today.
Anchored by an amazing combination of real training videos from the ’50s, prerecorded segments from the Narrator (Christopher Eastland), and onstage appearances by the Narrator, the play centers on two couples entering into wedded bliss in 1959. The plot traces the development of the couples’ relationships over five years and finds that the gender politics of the early-’60s pushes the marriages toward the “for worse” end of the spectrum.
Abby (Andie Nash) and Mason (Stefon Funderburke) are high school sweethearts who follow the expected pathway of marrying after high school. The virginal couple are innocent and naive and have not learned to communicate beyond a superficial level. Nash is at first annoying in her airheaded complacency, but as she becomes self-actualized through the span of the play, Nash imbues Abby with confidence and gravitas.
The other couple is a scandalous mismatch. Dan (Sebastian Barnett) is a wunderkind 16-year-old college freshman when he meets 23-year-old grad student Ruth (Joie Raymond). Ruth takes Dan’s virginity, gets pregnant, and spends the next few years emasculating and imprisoning him in a role-reversed marriage.
Keeping with MSU’s COVID policy, the actors perform in masks. Surprisingly, this is a minimal distraction. Nash, Barnett and Raymond in particular are strong enough performers that the emotions they display transcend the masks. Occasionally a line is lost when an actor spoke too quickly or softly, or turned away from the audience, but this was rare in the Saturday night performance. Enduring this “new normal” was an acceptable tradeoff to being able to see live theater again.
Robert Bastron’s script is sharp and funny, but Roznowski’s choices as the director and the excellent production values elevate the source material. The prerecorded segments that media designer Alison Dobbins created with the Narrator seamlessly match the style of media clips from the ’50s. Kasee Arnett’s set design and Eamon Moriarty’s props are chic, fun and functional. Costume designer Zech Saenz employs a neat trick with the costumes that reinforces the theme of becoming a self-actualized individual.
One of the most powerful statements about the social change taking place occurs in the final scene, and a seemingly small directorial choice sends a huge message. As a hint to avoid a spoiler, audience members should pay attention to the Narrator’s physical placement in the final scene, and discuss as they unwind over post-show drinks. Perhaps an Old-Fashioned?
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