"You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!" provides the answer to the musical question, "What's love got to do with it?"
In a word, everything. Well, make that two words: almost everything. A sense of humor goes a long way toward explaining how opposites attract and stay together long enough to celebrate their 10th anniversary. That's when we meet Annabelle and Jeff. She's running late to the romantic dinner he's planned and enters with a phone to her ear, in mid-conversation. He's got technology of his own -- a new iPad, a gift he's purchased from her to him (she gets the receipt to use as a write-off).
It's appropriate that Valentine's Day comes so close to the beginning of the CLO Cabaret's long run of "You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!," the he-said, she-said comedy in which spouses make a case to each other and the audience about how love has kept them together.
Anyone in a committed relationship will see something of themselves in the pair, which can be a lot of fun and a little uncomfortable, too -- a lot like the sitcom life that Annabelle and Jeff have carved for themselves. Real-life man and wife Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn are comedy writers and performers who based "You Say Tomato ..." on their own rocky marriage and adventures in parenting. Their willingness to share their personal brand of crazy is our gain.
Gregory Johnstone seems comfortable walking in the shoes of a man whose marriage contributes large doses of adoration and frustration to his life. He's a patient guy in love with a difficult woman, and difficult is how we see Annabelle Gurwitch. ("Great first name, worst last name," Jeff likes to say.) From the start, when Annabelle admits to her unromantic, pragmatic nature, Robin Abramson has the tougher task of winning the audience's support. Her character takes advantage of Jeff's obvious infatuation, dating others and ignoring him for long stretches, then imposing on him to watch her cat, and so on over a five-year span.
"He was kind and sweet and into me -- what a turn-off," she says. When those things suddenly become a turn-on, he's more than ready to answer the call.
CLO presents an attractive stage for the couple to reflect on their years together. Tony Ferrieri's Asian-influenced design of wood framing and opaque screens and Andrew David Ostrowski's moody backlighting should be soothing and romantic, but Annabelle and Jeff put the feng-shui vibe to the test. Audience members are engaged indirectly -- you won't be called on to speak or come up on stage -- as the couple flash back to the ups and downs of courtship, marriage and parenthood, each trying to enlist allies in his or her version of the way things were, and are.
While parenthood and work drain Annabelle's energy, Jeff's attraction to her remains undiminished. He desperately wants to have sex more than the allotted once a week on his wife's calendar. A scene finds her going on and on about the trials of her day while his frustration has reached a peak. Jeff begins poking a finger at her head and shoulders, and Annabelle asks, "What are you doing?" "Looking for the mute button," he answers, to some of the biggest laughs of the night.
The most spontaneous reaction from the sold-out crowd came when Jeff, channelling an "I Love Lucy" episode, decided it was time for a game of taking turns telling each other about what annoys her most about him and vice versa. There were unheeded warnings of "Noooo!" from the audience.
Just when we think this relationship is all about Jeff worshipping someone perfectly willing to be worshipped, Annabelle shows her feelings for him. She might not say "I love you," but she's not too pleased with Jeff's Facebook page, which is packed with female friends, lists his status as "Complicated" and has no pictures of her.
After an hour and 15 minutes (no intermission) of disagreement, they arrive at a conclusion together.
"I have grown accustomed to your crazy," Annabelle says. "We have matching crazies," Jeff counters.
On that they agree: Still crazy -- and still in love -- after all these years.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.