Playwrights’ Center

You can put your brain on automatic when you watch this one. The only thing unfamiliar about A Tudge Romance, Elise Formichella’s vaguely likable life-style comedy, is the word “tudge.” I gather it means a lowbrow along the lines of Stanley Kowalski. A line from Steel Magnolias captures my sense of what it means to be a tudge: “He’s a real gentleman . . . he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pisses in it.”

Here the tudge is Gaetano Mortilucci; and the opposite who attracts him is Andrea Griffiths. Alas, they come from different worlds. She’s a Boston lawyer specializing in trademark infringements who longs, not surprisingly, for an “authentic” life; he’s a housepainter who hates lawyers, snobs, and stupid dates. Andrea is different, but unfortunately she’s also a very loud Yankees fan, and Gaetano is a North Ender who’s true-blue to the Red Sox. (On their first date, Andrea literally gets carried away cheering for New York; Gaetano barely gets her out of Fenway Park before a riot erupts.) In one of the play’s many “ironic” parallels, Andrea’s love of baseball is opposed to Gaetano’s love of opera.

Andrea falls for the tudge’s refreshing earthy charm, common sense, and lack of materialism. But to get him, she must act down, pretend to be her own secretary so Gaetano won’t suspect she’s an uppity “tweed.” It seems Gaetano is still recovering after a woman dropped him to return to medical school. If he finds out that Andrea is also, well, a professional, all bets are off.

In this very parallel play, Andrea has also just been dumped–by Bingham Cornwall, a pompous, terminally boring colleague who talks in resumes and thinks only of CDs and other objects of the material persuasion. So what will happen when Gaetano discovers that the girl he loves is of the barrister persuasion? This question supplies the play’s only stab at conflict: the elemental clash of tudge and tweed.

The earliest entry in the summer fluff competition, A Tudge Romance basically hopes to reinvent the formula of Rich Dame With Empty Life meets Basic Man Afraid to Commit; it’s a story line that 30s Hollywood virtually played out, in classics like It Happened One Night, Holiday, My Man Godfrey, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. But Formichella’s indulgence in easy targets, broad stereotypes, and inconsequential plotting means that there’s little that’s new. And her twistless plot and spell-out-the-subtext dialogue lack the screwball spark of her obvious models.

But if you’re willing to endure some massive deja vu, Tudge can prove pleasant enough, if only for its sheer familiarity. And this Playwrights’ Center world premiere is charmingly unpretentious. (Considering the play’s baseball angle, it’s also a natural for a theater located right across from Wrigley Field.)

Hetty Mayer MacDowell’s energetic staging never condescends to the stereotypes or succumbs to their predictability. Playing Andrea, Genevieve Morrill puts her sultry Debra Winger voice to good use, playing every moment as if it were fresh off the processor–even a line as awful as “I can’t believe I kissed a tudge.” Though not the muscular hunk the dialogue suggests, John Catanzaro makes his salt-of-the-earth Gaetano a model tudge, a definite contrast to Curtis Osmun as Bingham, the smarmy preppy lawyer.

In the Eve Arden part, as the confidante Cindy who lives vicariously through Andrea’s new love life, Aggie Mollinger shows a skillful spunk–even though Formichella makes Cindy repeatedly talk to herself, always the most desperate kind of exposition.

The night I saw A Tudge Romance, the play had barely escaped an early and permanent closing; that afternoon a fire started by some kids playing with matches had engulfed the back of the Playwrights’ Center building. The theater reeked of fumes–but the show, as they say, went on. A good thing, too–in over a quarter-century, the Playwrights’ Center has amassed a legacy too valuable to go up in smoke.