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Review: "Everybody Say 'Cheese!'" at the Falcon Theatre

March 24, 2009 |  4:00 pm

CheeseWritten in the late 1960s and first produced in 1978, “Everybody Say ‘Cheese!’” was rewritten in 2008 by its playwright, Garry Marshall.  That retooled version, now at Marshall’s own Falcon Theatre in Burbank, is intended as a sort of tribute to Marshall’s mother, Marjorie, as Marshall makes clear in a charming program note.

Creator of the long-running television series “Happy Days” and “Mork & Mindy,” and larger screen fare “Pretty Woman” and “The Princess Diaries,” Marshall is a savvy veteran with an undeniable knack for the zinging one-liner. However, after 40 years in the making, this “Cheese” is more stale than properly aged.

The action is set in a Bronx apartment in 1965, shortly before New York’s divorce laws are about to be rewritten. At this particular period and in this particular state, the only way to obtain a “cheap and quick” divorce is to show proof of infidelity.

Frustrated housewife Harriet Keenan (DeeDee Rescher) wants to avail herself of that escape hatch before it closes.  Married for almost 30 years to Leo (Joe Regalbuto), a truck dispatch supervisor for an area newspaper, Harriet has been seriously unsettled by the burgeoning women’s movement and the growing sense that her domestic sphere is really a suffocating vacuum.  Conversely, the complacent Joe is a near-agoraphobe with an obsessive hobby of building shelves, a neat metaphor for the differences between the couple.  Leo builds shelves to escape the outside world he fears, while the prematurely “shelved” Harriet longs to venture into the wider world.

Keith Mitchell’s subtly claustrophobic set, closed in by banks of tchotchke-filled shelves, bespeaks people of limited means and taste, as is made clear by that window propped open with a toilet plunger -– a funny touch.

The period piece is bookended by a present-day narrator, the Keenans’ daughter Gail (Heather Corwin), who shares memories of her parents -– a cursory framing device that could have been wholly jettisoned without injury to the plot.  In the slow-starting first act, Harriet blindsides Leo with her demand for a divorce and hires sleazy lawyer (Joel Johnstone) to facilitate the split.  Events escalate to genuine hilarity in Act 2 with the arrival of an adenoidal call girl (inspired scene stealer Roberta Valderrama), who has been hired to pose in a “compromising” picture with Leo. Surprise visitors -– Gail and her husband, Barry (Cyrus Alexander), and Leo’s pal Charlie (John Capodice) -- reduce the occasion to chaos.

Unfortunately, Marshall’s clever premise is frequently undermined by cheap embellishment. Harriet’s habit of regularly chanting “ohm” seems forced and silly, a false note in Rescher’s otherwise fine performance, and having Valderramma’s “congested” hooker honk and snort like Felix Unger on steroids downgrades the tone to mere sitcom. (Marshall also co-created the television version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” so perhaps that was meant as homage.)

Director Steve Zuckerman and his cast display keen comic pacing, although Zuckerman sometimes missteps from the antic into the artificial.  But scrape away the synthetic rind of this “Cheese” and you will find real sweetness, an unexpected emotional sincerity that is the play’s greatest strength.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“Everybody Say ‘Cheese!’” Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 11. $32.50-$40.  (818) 955-8101.  Running time:  1 hour, 50 minutes.

Photo: DeeDee Rescher and Joe Regalbuto. Credit: Cheryl Games.