The play making its Pittsburgh debut at CLO Cabaret wears its heart on the marquee: "You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!" shouts "confrontational humor!" before you discover for yourself that it's about a husband and wife navigating relationship land mines while showing off skills in the art of one-upmanship.
The tomayto-tomahto couple of the comedy are Annabelle and Jeff. She is a witty woman, very much in love with her husband, competitive to a fault and of the opinion that she is always right. Always. Jeff is a sweet-natured optimist with a quick wit who adores his wife and just wants to make her happy, which he does. Occasionally.
Real-life couple and writer/performers Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn mined their marriage to create the play. Her credits include co-hosting "Dinner & a Movie" on TBS and guesting on "All Things Considered" on NPR; his include a writing Emmy for "The Ben Stiller Show" and appearances on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage" and films such as "Tropic Thunder" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."
On their website, they describe how they've held their relationship together: "By ignoring conventional wisdom and fostering a lack of intimacy, using parenting as a competitive sport and dropping out of couples therapy."
If something about the character Jeff is driving Annabelle crazy and you're in the vicinity, you'd better duck. The word-play wars are about to commence.
"I really like the way it's written; it's really funny," said Gregory Johnstone, who plays Jeff and was a cast member of the CLO Cabaret's "Shear Madness" in 2008. "It made me feel one of two ways: Either, 'Yay, I'm not crazy,' or 'I'm just as crazy as they are.' "
"I think they are subtly right-on a lot," said Robin Abramson, a busy Pittsburgh actress who is making her cabaret debut as Annabelle. "She says something subtly about an article that men in the relationship always think they do more than they do. I really identify with that, because my boyfriend will come home and take out the trash and that's like his big thing. I want to remind him of all the things I did that day for the house, but I can't. I don't want to go there."
In "You Say Tomato," Annabelle and Jeff often go there. The trick is to be funny and clever but not take the negative vibe too far.
"They like to argue, but it's not a mean argument," Mr. Johnstone added. "They like to top each other; it's getting the other person to laugh. That's what they like to do."
The actors listed their characters' traits and what came through was the inevitably of a clash or two.
"Annabelle is tough, she's opinionated. She's always right. She's very in love with Jeff; she's very funny. And she's competitive. She likes to play; she likes to win ...," Ms. Abramson said.
"She's very pragmatic, too," Mr. Johnstone chimed in.
"... She's logical," Ms. Abramson continued. "She's definitely the rational half of the couple. You have to have a plan: This is how we're going to do it, trust me, I'm right. If you only realize how right I am."
"He's madly in love with Annabelle, a head in the clouds kind of thing," Mr. Johnstone said of Jeff. "He's the more optimistic one. Just think positive thoughts, it'll work itself out. Jeff is more like winging it."
All in all, the perfect storm for a couples comedy.
"They have a great relationship because no matter what happens, what's said, they continually try to make each other laugh," director Van Kaplan said. "Those compulsive things about Annabelle, that's what he loves about her. And those hopeless romantic, flighty things he does, that's what she loves about him. It's a wonderful kind of volley to watch back and forth as they play with each other."
The play fits Mr. Kaplan's "light-hearted" approach to CLO Cabaret programming. He compared it to "Defending the Caveman," a show that tells of relationships through history, from the guys' point of view.
"The same way 'Defending the Caveman' touched a chord with married couples and they saw themselves up on stage, I hope they'll connect with these two guys," Mr. Kaplan said. "It's like, 'Oh my God, we have done that a million times.' The thing we have to find is, that no matter what is said, these two are devoted to each other. It comes from a good place."
He was seated at a table at the Cabaret at Theater Square with his two stars during a lunch break, trying to enjoy this part of the process. "You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!" is the latest directorial project Mr. Kaplan has assigned himself as executive producer of Pittsburgh CLO and the CLO Cabaret. That's back-to-back January shows, after last year's "Ruthless the Musical!" Directing is his first love, but this is the only time of year he is available, what with preparing the CLO's summer season and producing the Gene Kelly Awards ceremony here and the national high school musical awards shows known as the Jimmys in New York.
"We're discovering right now what the gems are of the piece. This period of rehearsal is the most fun, and then we come into tech, and that's no fun. And then the show opens, and that's like horror," said Mr. Kaplan.
"Horror?" Ms. Abramson asked.
Mr. Kaplan smiled. Debuting a show is always a coin toss, especially one that will run for four months. This play seemed like a good fit, falling between the musical revues "A Grand Night for Singing" and "Side by Side by Sondheim."
The four months from rehearsals to the May finale of "You Say Tomato" is a big commitment for busy actors. Ms. Abramson, the Post-Gazette's 2009 Performer of the Year ("Mary's Wedding" and "Blackbird" at City Theatre) can't recall ever being booked for more than a four-week run.
"I was initially apprehensive to take a gig for four months," she said. "At first I thought, great, as an actor to get paid for a gig for four months, that's pretty rare. Then I thought, what if I want to go on vacation? But I'm happy to be doing this. It's going to be hilarious; it's going to be a good time."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.