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Poignant, profound, ‘Engagement Rules’ contains plenty of dry wit


Playwright Rich Orloff bills his play Engagement Rules as a comedy with bite. While the play definitely contains acerbic one-liners, plenty of dry wit and a great deal of situational comedy, the play sensitively probes the abiding paradox of love: “Two beings become one yet remain two.”

The first couple is Tom and Donna, superbly played by Lemec Bernard and Cantrella Canady. The play opens with the two of them in bed, sharing some post-coital pillow talk that ends unceremoniously in an awkward, impromptu marriage proposal. While not the grand gesture that she’d always fantasized about, Donna agrees. But planning a wedding only adds to the demands on her overcrowded schedule. You see, Donna has just started law school and is on the fast track to a career as a civic and social activist.

Then she flunks a key test. Not one on constitutional or tort law, but the one that involves a pee stick. No doubt that many of the women and some of the men who see this show will be able to identify with the look of utter shock, chagrin and looming despair that spreads across Cantrella Canady’s flummoxed face in this scene. But the unexpected and ill-timed pregnancy serves as a catalyst for the dilemma the couple now faces. Donna wants children, just not right now. Tom wants this baby. It’s a life, his life, growing inside her and there are no guarantees that Donna will be able to get pregnant in five or six years if she terminates the pregnancy.

Without question, abortion is a polarizing topic, but through Tom and Donna, Orloff puts a very human face on a decision hundreds of thousands of women face each year. No matter how new or old a relationship, all couples are eventually tested by conflicts involving sex, finances, in-laws and friends. But the subject of abortion is not a level playing field. While she’s willing to listen to Tom and consider his desires and concerns, Donna makes it abundantly clear to her fiance’ that “it’s my body, my decision” in the final analysis. Can he accept and support her decision if, in the end, she decides not to go through with the pregnancy? Should he? Or is this one area that’s a deal breaker?

Tom and Donna’s best friends are an older couple by the names of Phil and Rose, lovingly played by Jim Yarnes and Carolyn England. While Phil is an agnostic at best and atheist for all intents and purposes, Orloff ups the ante by making Rose a deeply spiritual pro-life churchgoer who is religiously, if not politically, in Tom’s camp. But instead of reacting in a predictably proscriptive manner, Rose instead provides her conflicted friend with the love and compassion Jesus shows to the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners he encounters throughout the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Both the process and outcome are poignant and profound, but not without a sprinkling of wry humor – as when, during a momentary personal interlude, Rose chides God about the wisdom of his divine plan, demanding to know “Is this really the best You can do?” [It’s a scene that conjures comparisons to the “Not So Fast” episode of Everyone Loves Raymond, where after Frank and Marie are kicked out of their condo in a New Jersey retirement community, Robert looks heavenward and says, “You, are not funny!” to which Debra adds, “He does like screwing with him.”]

While you don’t have to be of a certain age to appreciate the humor in their relationship, older audience members not only appreciate Phil and Rose, they identify with them. After 50 years of marriage, their relationship is one of mutual toleration more than couple identity … until their friendship with Tom and Donna injects new life into their age-old partnership. When Tom describes the act of making love as “touching his partner’s soul,” Phil decides he wants to know what that’s like. The easy part is popping Viagra like they’re Skittles and thumbing through the pages of the Kama Sutra both in and out of bed. But to get Rose to go along with his psycho-spiritual quest to touch her soul, he has to give her something she dearly wants – his ass cheeks in the wooden pew at church on Sunday mornings and his participation in a couples’ retreat with Rose’s fellow parishioners.

What could possibly go wrong?

The role of Phil seems tailor-made for Jim Yarnes. He’s droll, sardonic and so prone to abruptness – if not downright crotchetiness – that one wonders if Rose mistook starch for fabric softener when she laundered his boxers. But his timing is impeccable and, while there’s no Jerry McGuire moment in Engagement Rules, the couple’s souls do touch – although perhaps not exactly in the way you’d think.

There’s a nice ying-yang quality to Engagement Rules. While Tom and Donna are tasked with determining how much of their unique personal selves they can retain and still have identity as a couple, Phil and Rose seem willing to yield up more and more of their individuality in order to [re]discover a closer and more satisfying connection.

And to Orloff’s credit, not only does he expose the human side of abortion, he tackles the topic of geriatric sex with a perceptiveness that cuts through the discomfort that normally attends the subject, at least among younger audience members.

For those who like their comedies uproariously funny, there’s much to commend Engagement Rules. For those who want theater to provide food for thought and apres-theatre discussion, there’s a veritable buffet on the table that is the Foulds Theatre. And for those who simply appreciate fine acting, Lemec Bernard, Cantrella Canady, Carolyn England and Jim Yarnes do superb jobs with their characters. Bernard displays a soft sentimentality one would not suspect after seeing him as the dark, brooding and almost sinister Herald Loomis in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Canady is magnificent in the role that requires her to conjure emotions no woman ever wants to experience. Yarnes is a stitch as a dry-witted curmudgeon who is surprised to discover that there is no age limit on sexuality and sexual activity. And Carolyn England is masterful in a role that demands equal measures of sensitivity, compassion, dogged determination and humor.

The final weekend of Engagement Rules affords four more opportunities to catch the show: Thursday, Friday and Saturday (October 3-5) at 7:30 p.m. with a closing 2:00 p.m. matinee on Sunday (October 6).

October 1, 2019.



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