Mutually Assured Destruction Review – Amusing Cold War Metaphor

Eve (Brynn Thayer), Murray (Bobby Costanzo) and zany waiter (Michael Caldwell)

Mutually Assured Destruction, written by Peter Lefcourt and directed by Terri Hanauer, is a comedy of middle-aged sexual mores. The cartoon graphic on the poster is an homage to the 1970 Paul Mazursky movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a spoof on the then-hip craze of wife swapping. This world premiere is produced by Racquel Lehrman and Theatre Planners at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Gerald: Except in MAD, we don’t have so much wife swapping as wife coveting. It’s all (or mostly) in the mind. Specifically, it’s in the mind of main character Arnie (Kip Gilman), who, like the real-life Peter Lefcourt, is tall, lanky, and glib. He starts right out, breaking the fourth wall, and explains the conceit of the title to the audience: It’s all about relationship-crippling threats, like the Cold War, about the damage your perceived friends and enemies could do to your marriage based on the dirt they know or can make up, if given the slightest provocation.

Georja: “Mutually Assured Destruction” is a phrase that came out of the Cold War where no one would commit the first strike for fear of devastating retaliation. In this play, the author creates a scenario of adultery among a group of friends along with its ensuing multiple deceits and then goes to great lengths to squeeze it into the MAD framework. As an intellectual exercise, this is admirable. You can see the downright cleverness of this extended metaphor. (Lefcourt even goes so far as to name the characters after the prominent Russians, North Koreans and others involved in the Cold War.) But as far as willing suspension of disbelief required in the theater, it gets a little tricky.

L to R: Myrna, Eve, Arnie (Kip Gilman), Murray, Herb (Stuart Pankin), and Carol (Gina Hecht)

Gerald: I am an admitted long-time fan of Peter Lefcourt’s comic novels, but this is the first of his plays I’ve seen. I think it takes a lot of guts in this post-iPhone age to attempt literate, male-centered comedy. His The Woody, about Clintonesque sexual dalliance during a national electoral campaign, and The Deal, about a Hollywood movie in turnaround, are hysterical classics. I’d even hazard a guess that his Manhattan Beach Project was the inspiration for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, although I bet neither of them wants to talk about it.

Georja: This piece, with its bare stage and Gilman’s folksy explanations to the audience, is like a series of comedy scenes done in a cabaret. The characters are sketchy and mostly defined by one attribute alone, especially the wives. The women included extremely devoted husband pleaser Myrna (Gwendolyn Druyor), Arnie’s clueless non-questioning wife Carol (Gina Hecht) and cheating wife-slut Eve (Brynn Thayer). The men weren’t much more developed, although the confidences of our narrator Arnie  to the audience were incessant. He clued us in as to every motivation and its strategic impact.The only character I felt real empathy for was Herb (Stuart Pankin) - the deceived guy whose wife was screwing around. He was the only one who felt any pain – for about 15 minutes, and then he got over it.  I found his performance to be hilarious and at the same time his acting truthful.

Gerald: On the night we attended MAD, the audience was a clone of the characters on the stage -- Westsiders, mostly over fifty. Lots of neighborhood jokes about La-La Land, including annoyance of driving to the valley and paranoia about going “west of Lincoln” because of pollution near the beach. The biggest laugh was when Eve and Carol compare notes on their TV reception. Carol and Arnie have DirecTV, and Eve and Murray (Bobby Costanzo) have Time Warner. It won’t come as any news that the audience, like Eve, loves to hate Time Warner. Costanzo and Druyor also have some funny bits involving a workman’s tool belt as the well-equipped Murray doubles back to “cheat” on his girlfriend with his wife.

Myrna (Gwendolyn Druyor) and hubby Murray

Georja: Hanauer’s direction was spot-on for the piece, and the actors did not miss a cue. Thayer was fun to watch prance about the stage. I especially enjoyed the peeling away of Druyor’s scorned wife’s character from a straight-laced woman to the sexiest one of all. It made one wonder why the husband needed to seek outside thrills. Michael Caldwell was fun in his multiple stints as waiter, barista, bikini waxer and butler. The audience enjoyed mostly the topical humor, and the deeper underlying  implications were left unexplored. Many laughed and perhaps that was the purpose. But does it really have any resonance with the Cold War?

Gerald: This comedy of manners, witty and intellectually sharp as it is, lacks two things. First, there’s not much physical comedy. Granted that Lefcourt, who has more than paid his dues on episodic TV, probably didn’t want to lapse into flat-out sitcom. But Moliere would not have hesitated. Lucille Ball or Ernst Lubitsch would have had characters frantically running between bedrooms. There is one notable episode of simulated Tantric sex, and believe me you don’t want to miss that. Second, there is no mention whatever of the younger generation. Everyone out there knows the Millennials would sooner kill their parents and grandparents so they can fix the world the older generation messed up (defeating the Nazis, starting and ending the Cold War, and inventing the Internet apparently don’t count for much). And they certainly don’t want to know anything about what happens in those crusty bedrooms. But those younger folks do occasionally buy theater tickets. Some of them are actually literate and might appreciate a good farce. But the cast is composed of three middle-aged couples and a multidimensional waiter. If any one of them has a son or a daughter, you wouldn’t know it. Or a former marriage, even. They are all living the life north of Montana, and their biggest enemy is boredom. You won’t need to go to the theater to get that revelation.

Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne and animal advocate.Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.

Photos by Ed Krieger

Mutually Assured Destruction by Peter Lefcourt

Produced by Racquel Lehrman and Theatre Planners at the Odyssey Theatre,

Odyssey Theatre

2055 South Sepulveda Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90025

(310) 477-2055

The World Premiere of Mutually Assured Destruction runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through August 26, 2012.

Tickets are $25 at or (323) 960-5772.

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