All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The upscale restaurant setting Tony Ferrieri designed for “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!,” the inaugural offering at Phil Roy’s Penn’s Landing Playhouse, is perfect beyond giving the characters a place to meet and talk.
Although “You Say Tomato” features a couple who make a date to mark their 10th wedding anniversary, authors Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn, have their characters, also named Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn, speak directly to the house. Instead of listening to a dining couple reminisce over lamb chops about their decade of mutual experiences, the audience becomes more like guests at the Kahns’ celebration. It’s as if we have been invited to have dinner with them, and more as if someone asked them how they met and if staying together 10 years had challenges, the answer to which leads to 80 minutes during which the Kahns regale the crowd with the various trials and triumphs of their courtship and marriage.
Gurwitch and Kahn were the original stars in their show. Both are writers and actors, and “You Say Tomato” should make a great sinecure for them during dry times in their careers. They are obviously bright people who approach all aspects and period in their lives with unflappably merry humor.
The Penn’s Landing actors, Robin Abramson and Gregory Johnstone, both veterans of “You Say Tomato” from a Pittsburgh production, carry on the Kahns’ tone of sparkly levity. With few exceptions, they smile broadly, as if they were on top of and ready for any riposte or rejoinder coming their way, and they always have that actory “here’s-a-funny-story” giggle in their voice. From the time Johnstone comes on stage, all is upbeat even when the Kahns’ tribulations or disappointments are the focus.
Nothing heavy ever stays the focus for long, 30 seconds tops. The authors, the actors, and no doubt the director, Van Kaplan, have all opted for breezy. Abramson and Johnstone speak as if their have cocktails in their hands, the perkiest of moods, and a penchant to entertain. In a real sense, they are throwing a party and want all assembled to have a good time hearing about them.
Breeziness helps. The Kahns’ story is not so much different from that of any other couple that juggles two careers while raising a child (Ezra, age 8 at the time of the anniversary). The enjoyment comes with the telling, and the energy and tone of sharing fun that Abramson and Johnstone employ keep the show bubbly. You may not hear any sharp insights or anything that makes the Kahns special beyond working at high levels in television, but you don’t mind listening to the their stories, several of which are cute and some of which are funny when presented in the context of party conversation.
Enjoyment also comes from recognition. Because the Kahns go through a lot of the same boosts, banalities, and conflicts as everyone else, their stories get a lot of nods and laughs of recognition when Abramson and Johnstone hit on a subject that strikes home. I noticed both of my companions staring at me when Jeff teases Annabelle about her temperamental outbursts at other drivers.
Because Kahn has written for sitcoms, and Gurwitch built a following as host of TBS’s “Dinner and a Movie,” they keep their comedy at the level of a smart, middle-of-the-road television show like “How I Met Your Mother.”
“You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up” is as much of a stand-up act as it is a play, and an audience should be prepared for light, fast, sitcom-like badinage rather than depth or anything more than amiably needling humor about establishing and maintaining a relationship. Stories are not sustained. Abramson and Johnstone are not doing sketches or even being witty as much as they’re animatedly overlapping lines that tell the stories of two lives that, to some surprise, have continued to coincide.
“You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!” goes beyond the scope of the Kahns’ marriage. It covers the 15-year period that begins with their first meeting at the home of a mutual friend.
Jeff sees Annabelle bending over to take potato latkes from an oven. At first he is attracted to the curve of her posterior, but once he agrees to sample a latke, and the pair begin to talk, he is smitten by Annabelle’s direct and quirky personality.
Jeff remains smitten while Annabelle, who likes her freedom and prefers to date, or even mate, serially rather than committing to one guy, shows only intermittent interest. There’s one running gag in which Jeff calls Annabelle, and she has to take a moment to remember who he is. “Jeeeeeefffffff?,” she says loudly into the phone as if trying to recall who Jeff can be. The gag stands out because Abramson extends both the “Jeeeeefffffff” and the gag for too long. By the third time she does it, you want to say, “Enough already!”
“You Say Tomato” often gets mileage from the basic differences in Jeff’s and Annabelle’s personalities. As during their courtship, Jeff tends to be romantic, sentimental, and a tad childlike. He is the one who carries the flame and keeps it kindled. Annabelle is more of an independent spirit who takes chances and prefers the random to the established. She is also the more business minded, and the one who takes care of the couple’s finances because “if I left the bills to Jeff, we and our child would be living in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk.”
The couple bicker and carp at each other. They also share good times and kisses. To their credit, Abramson and Johnstone always let you see how crazy the couple is about each other.
In a show as crowded with incident as “You Say Tomato,” every one in the audience is bound to like a different bit the best. My favorite is one in which Annabelle suddenly arrives at Jeff’s door, after months of being absent from his life, and hands him her cat to take care of while she goes on assignment from L.A. to New York for a month. I can tell you that if I was Jeff in that scene, the whole situation would have been different. There would be no play or marriage because the relationship would have ended there.
Johnstone sets the “You Say Tomato” audience at ease from his entrance. He starts talking to the audience so personably, you can’t tell whether he’s a warm-up guy greeting the crowd or if the show has started. He will maintain that level of congeniality throughout the show, his tone always good-humored and conversational.
Johnstone gives Jeff more facets than Abramson does Annabelle, and Jeff comes across as more likeable and more sympathetic because of it.
Abramson doesn’t change much throughout the show. No matter what is on Annabelle’s mind, it’s presented in a cheery tone that never varies. Annabelle always seems justified and satisfied at being Annabelle, take her or leave her.
“You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!” runs through at least November 24 at the Penn’s Landing Playhouse, housed in the Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Columbus Boulevard (Delaware Avenue), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $55 to $35 and can be ordered by calling 855-448-7469 (855-HIT-SHOW) or going online to www.thetomatocomedy.com.