The compressed journey of Same Time, Next Year invites the viewer to fall in love with illicit love, in the most benign way. The second and final production of Two Muses Theatre’s inaugural season, playwright Bernard Slade’s excursion into a committed extramarital relationship — rationed out in annual portions — delights in the escapist pleasures of two people who keep their romance unassailable by the rigors and changes of normal life. As directed by Nancy Kammer, this production (again staged in a space off the West Bloomfield Township Barnes & Noble) pairs an unconventional love story with the warm security of staying power, and the cast of two sweetly delivers on its promise.
After a brief time capsule of images establishing the year as 1951, morning-after light streams into a cozy little inn in northern California. That the man and woman waking up together are strangers to each other is as plain as their disbelieving faces; that this was infidelity on both their parts is discovered just as quickly. Gently naive housewife Doris (Diane Hill) and routinely flustered accountant George (Aaron H. Alpern) make no pretenses to each other: each is married — happily so — with children. However, because each takes the same annual trip, the captivated George and Doris realize they can carry on a relationship this way, meeting just one weekend per year. The clunky business of arriving at this incredible pact between a pair with who-knows-what in common is handled smoothly by Kammer and company; the earned closeness that grows between Hill and Alpern from the outset provides sufficient buy-in.
Subsequent scenes find the years rolling along, often five at a time. Viewers keep up with the era in the form of projected images prior to each scene that reflect news, media, popular culture, advertising, and trends through the ‘60s and ‘70s, with nostalgic accompaniment by sound designers Kammer and Hill. Costumes and properties by Barbie Amann Weisserman cheekily demonstrate the changing and widening societal norms as Doris and George each find success, have more children, suffer losses, and experience doubt, self-actualization, and reinvention. In a sweet piece of counterpoint, designer Bill Mandt’s adroitly angled set (thoroughly dressed, also by Weisserman) makes no such alteration, only growing more outdated as the years pass. Lighting design by Lucy Meyo provides a few instances of commentary, but mostly stands back and lets the action proceed.
The greatest challenge for Hill and Alpern is that of dropping in on a character every five years, a feat that requires both extreme change and believable continuity. The performers are up to the challenge, as Hill’s Doris gains self-esteem hand over fist and devours new knowledge and experiences, and Alpern’s George retreats into cool reserve, a clipped stuffed shirt that has little basis in his younger self. By investing in the rituals of their partnership and the touchstone of their relationship, both stay true to the characters and make believable leaps, even as their paths diverge and overlap and crash together again. What passes between Doris and George over more than two decades is sometimes cartoonish and even as corny as you please, but the humor is prevailingly gentle as a cloud. Everything that happens in this world has fuzzy, blunted edges; Kammer lowers the stakes as much as possible, preferring an atmosphere of safe preservation of this relationship walled off from the threats of the real world. Without sharp conflict, there’s no room for sharp comedy here, but instead a partnership imbued in soft fondness that ambles along with tenderness and charm.
By the end of Same Time, Next Year’s second act, the extent of the viewer’s closeness with these characters and their story is surprising. As one lover posits, despite stretching out for decades, their relationship spans barely a month in aggregate; so, too, do the two hours the audience spends with them feel somehow complete. The secret to this feather-light comedy is in creating an encapsulated haven, a vehicle for enacting a life in miniature by showing a bare but precious sliver of it, and it is a lovely escape indeed.