By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/3/22 – Friday, April 1, was opening night at Theatre West in Los Angeles of a new production of Classic Couples Counseling, a clever comedy penned by Lloyd J. Schwartz and directed by Nick McDow Musleh. The best cure for these times might be laughter and this comedy based on five troubled couples from Shakespeare’s plays hits the mark.
Set in a modern-day therapist’s office, the play unfolds as our psychiatrist Petruchio Cataldo, played aptly by Constance Mellors, helps guide each of the couples through the slings and arrows of their dysfunction deep within and during the winter of their discontent. Constance Mellors, as Dr. Petruchio Cataldo, has a series of psychiatric appointments, each dedicated to various and renowned Shakespearian couples’ most noted dysfunctions. She is reprising the role from the original production in 2014 at The Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood.
First we meet Hamlet, played up in full comic manner by Rick Simone-Friedland and a strong-willed Ophelia (Deanna Gandy) who is quite frustrated with Hamlet’s “wishy washiness.” Hamlet is generally distracted and worried about what his ghostly father wants him to do. Ophelia is determined to figure out why Hamlet does not want to marry her. As for the death of Ophelia’s father Polonius who Hamlet stabbed behind the curtains in the castle, Hamlet says it was an accident. Hamlet’s irritation about Ophelia is that “She has to be pushed into everything! Frailty, thy name is woman!” What tops it off for Ophelia is “He’s got this real obsession with death, ghosts, skulls . . . this family’s so screwed up.” And she claims that when she wanted to talk about her feelings, Hamlet said, “Get thee to a nunnery!” Hamlet eventually admits that he was mad at his mother, not Ophelia, and that he “didn’t really mean it.”
Dr. Cataldo’s primary concern with Romeo, played by a gangly Cecil Jennings and Juliet played by an excitable Amelia Vargas revolves about their very young ages. Juliet is 13, but makes much ado about being 13 ½. Juliet says boldly: “Things are different now. Thirteen’s the new twenty.” Of course, the background is the familial feuding between the Montagues and the Capulets, and sword-fighting seems to be the only game in time for young men. The unfortunate problem is that Tybalt, Juliet’s short-tempered cousin, killed Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend, in a street brawl, and then impulsively Romeo slew Tybalt. When Dr. Cataldo asks young Romeo, “How are you going to support her?” Given that Romeo is in hiding after being banished from Verona by the Prince, he says proudly: “People can always use a good swordsman!”
Desdemona, played by Mary Elisabeth Somers, arrives early at the couples therapy appointment with Dr. Cataldo and is waiting for Othello to show up, as he is busy with his usual military obligations. Othello is portrayed as a smooth and macho manner by Brandon Foxworth. Before Othello sets foot in the psychologist’s office, Desdemona’s best friend Emilia (Ashley Taylor) pops in to argue for a divorce based on Desdemona’s supposed infidelity with Cassio, as is evidenced by a handkerchief. Desdemona laments Othello’s tardiness for the appointment by confiding: “He’s probably off with Iago doing God knows what. Iago is such a kiss ass. I suspect [he] wants to be more than friends [with my husband}.” That, of course, really sets Emilia off as she assumes that such insinuations about her own husband Iago are a reason to dish on Desdemona and her supposed affair with Cassio. The racial difference of Othello being “black” is another barb hurled by Emilia, with the claim that Desdemona’s father is a “bigot” who just thought she “was going through a phase” when she married the Moor. Othello’s lack of trust in his wife rears its ugly head when he finally does show up in Dr. Cataldo’s office. This prompts Desdemona to ask him: “Are you going to bring up that damned handkerchief thing again?”
Kate and Petruchio, played respectively and comedically by Anne Leyden and Bill Sehres is sheer comic repartee, as they jab each other with insults until Dr. Cataldo intervenes and suggests they do some healthy role reversal playing each other. She speculates that, based on Petruchio’s hot and cold behavior toward Kate, that he may be suffering from bipolar disorder as he is “so different than the man who courted [Kate].” The actors, who are in real life a married couple, played these roles in a 2014 production of the play in NoHo at The Secret Rose Theatre. It seems that the role-reversal somehow does the trick in making the couple realize that they are still “hot” for each other.
Finally, we encounter the grim MacBeths, who are quite conscious that they are royals above the others in status and certainly Scottish – unlike the other couples who are Italian. Lady Macbeth is a shrewd and controlling woman played by Barbara Mallory who pushes her husband Macbeth (Joe Nassi) to do the unthinkable to stay in power. However, she is bothered that they are not popular with their subjects in Scotland. Lady MacBeth has a certain obsession with hand-washing, as she keeps leaving the office to go to the bathroom to wash her hands. Macbeth complains about her sleep-walking. As we know, she seems unable to cleanse the symptoms of her own guilty manipulations, which leads Dr. Cataldo to an early onset OCD diagnosis. Dr. Cataldo encourages MacBeth to take up a hobby, but to no avail. Lady MacBeth is determined to kill anyone to maintain power in the Kingdom of Scotland.
At this point, Dr. Cataldo decides to try a group therapy session for the five troubled couples, three of which seem divorce-bound. This leads to a crazy scene where Emilia suddenly crashes the session and all hell breaks loose. Will Lady MacBeth wash her hands of therapy or simply deal with her hand-washing obsession? Will Kate and Petruchio realize that their mutual love for each other is more than verbal jousting? Will Hamlet continue his obsession with his father’s ghost and skulls and pay attention to Ophelia before she goes off to lay down in a stream covered with flowers? And what about the far-too-young lovers from Verona, Romeo and Juliet, who are clueless about the world and lost in their puppy love with no future?
Classic Couples Counseling is directed by Nick McDow Musleh directs. Nick graduated from the UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television in 2006. Since then, he has performed at Theatre West and the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, as well as guest starring and recurring roles on CBS. He most recently directed a short film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost at a Shakespeare Workshop at Theatre West.
Lloyd J. Schwartz is the playwright with a long list of work in television, including the TV series Love, American Style; Alice; The Munsters Today; The A Team, The Love Boat, and Baywatch. As an ABC network executive, he supervised production on Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, What’s Happening and Three’s Company. With his father, TV legend Sherwood Schwartz, he co-created Harper Valley P.T.A.
Theatre West Classic Couples Counseling is a joyous romp and definitely worth seeing at Theatre West. The play runs April 1 through May 8, 2022. Admission: $40.00. For reservations and online ticketing, go to http://theatrewest.org. Theatre West is located at 3333 Cahuenga Boulevard, Los Angeles – near North Hollywood, Universal City and Studio City. The production on Saturdays and Sundays is at 8:00 pm, and on Sunday at 2:00 pm.