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No Exit 

Love at first fight at Encore Dinner Theatre

Theda Blau needs a miracle. Or two. And in the reflexive logic of It Had to Be You, she knows exactly where to look. It has to be Vito Pignoli, she reasons in an aside to the audience. He's the only other character in the play.

It's something of a misnomer to think of It Had to Be You as a romantic comedy. Theda and Vito's relationship is about as romantic as a three-day weekend in the seventh circle of Dante's Purgatory. Vito spends most of the play trying to escape Theda's apartment, and the more we learn about her, the more we empathize with Vito's unique suffering at her demonic hands. She's a New Age version of Kathy Bates in Misery, attacking her prey with scrambled tofu and beet-root coffee concoctions before assaulting him with dramatic readings from her work-in-progress, a one-woman comedy about Sasha, a Russian woman hallucinating while being tortured in the tower until she is finally crucified at age 79. Your basic drawing-room comedy.

The script wears thin and is in need of patching throughout the play, but the cast is strong enough to keep the audience from feeling uneasy about embarrassingly threadbare plot lines and jokes. For a gage on the level of the play's logic, consider the basic premise: Vito meets Theda in a commercial audition, gives her a ride home, has a quick fling, and then, when he discovers she's "a goddamn psychic whacko UFO," he is trapped in her apartment by virtue of the fact that he can't get a limo or a taxi because it's snowing. They are in New York City, there is a subway four blocks away, but that is an impossible distance in his Gucci shoes.

Despite a certain sympathy for Theda's pathetic loser-among-losers character -- she has such a monopoly on rejection that when someone else gets rejected, she gets a royalty -- the audience never tires of Pamela Clifton's performance in the role. Clifton walks a razor's edge, knowing that her annoying personality is crucial to setting up the play's conflict and tension, but also fully aware that the success of the production depends on the audience's tolerance, even fondness, for her character's quirky, obsessive approach to her relationships.

Clifton exudes vulnerability, spending most of her time on stage in a frumpy bathrobe, working to translate her character's wide-eyed optimism and her awestruck sense of wonder into qualities palatable to Vito, or at least to the audience. Though playwrights Rene Taylor and Joseph Bologna attempt to give her a breakthrough moment or two of sanity and usefulness in the second act, there is nothing in the script to keep a sane man from walking the four blocks to the subway. That task is left to Clifton, and she succeeds against all odds.

Clifton's comedic foil is the capable Tupper Cullum, the straight man who bears the brunt of Theda's subconscious penchant for making men suffer. His Vito vacillates between a distinguished, educated, successful professional and the slightly more rough-hewn Italian who flirts with stereotypes when his guard comes down. Cullum is a gifted actor, and nowhere is his ability to transcend the conventions of an imperfect play more evident than in a scene of sudden seriousness in the second act. With nothing but sympathetic suffering to establish the bond between audience and characters, the playwrights make a random departure late in the play, dropping an undeveloped allusion to past trauma onto the stage without warning or craft. Cullum captures the scene, evoking an evening's worth of emotion in a play that had previously existed on a different plane.

Together, Cullen and Clifton hold the audience's interest and capture our sympathy as they elevate a second-rate play into a first-rate production. It Had to Be You may not have the fire power and irresistible comic attraction to parlay these performances into an extended run of SRO nights at Castaways, but the solid acting paired with the simple but professional production values makes for a worthy night of theater and a breath of fresh air in the midst of the often erudite local stages.

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