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Gambit Weekly Promises Kept

WHAT: Promises, Promises WHERE: Rivertown Repertory Theatre, 325 Minor St., Kenner, 468-7221 WHEN:Through June 29

By Dalt Wonk

Finally, they are alone. Their eyes lock. Riding an irresistible wave of desire, they tear off each other's clothes. Their faces are lost in wild ecstasy. They pant. They moan. They writhe in rapturous abandon.

Well, you know how it is. In the movies, I mean, where that's a more or less commonplace depiction of contemporary romance.

On stage, we get a poor substitute. It goes something like this:

Finally, they are alone. Their eyes lock. Slowly they approach one another and surrender to a deep, passionate kiss.

The movie version, if well done, can be quite a turn on, while the timid, almost prim stage version often is embarrassing. But both versions, more often than not, have something unconvincing about them that detracts from the story and the emotions that are meant to be at stake.

In Neil Simon's Promises, Promises, by contrast, Eros slips in amid a moment of general confusion.

Chuck Baxter, the hero, is lying on the floor of his apartment holding his stomach, which has just been punched by the enraged brother of Fran Kubelik, the heroine. (Baxter had enraged the brother with a maladroit attempt to coverup for Fran.) She runs over to Baxter, gives him a buss on the cheek and calls him an idiot. Then, she hurries off with her brother.

And yet we know, unmistakably, that she is now in love.

This understated exchange is not merely a charming and effective bit of story-telling, it's central to what the play is about.

The "carnal" in this modern-day cautionary tale is inextricably mired in greed. Corporate greed is expressed as corporeal greed. The executives of Consolidated Life -- that allegorically named quintessence of big business -- expect casual sex with their employees as one of their perks.

In the case of the lower-level executives, the play winks at these peccadilloes. But when the focus turns to Fran's misguided love for Jeff Sheldrake, the tone shifts radically.

Sheldrake is a high-powered, upper-echelon executive -- a Don Juan whose personal life has been divided between his wife and family and a long string of office conquests.

Fran is sincere and serious -- as were some other Sheldrake conquests like his acerbic secretary, Miss Olsen. But Fran has the good fortune to be Baxter's secret flame as well. And Baxter, it turns out, is a young man capable of commitment.

The climax is forced by Baxter's little scam of lending out his apartment as an executive love nest in exchange for promotions. He comes home one evening to find Fran on his bed, half-dead from an overdose of sleeping pills she has taken after realizing the shallowness of Sheldrake's intentions.

Although Baxter has been consumed by ambition -- and willing to use this somewhat sordid apartment lend-out scheme to cheat his way up the corporate ladder -- he ultimately places his love for Fran above his ambition and is redeemed in the end.

Much of the strengths and subtleties of Promises, Promises are traceable to its progenitor, Bill Wilder's 1960 Academy Award-winning movie, The Apartment. But Simon's 1968 script is, as usual, eminently playable, audience-pleasing and, at times, exasperatingly coy.

The current production at Rivertown Rep is sterling. Robert Self's excellent set, with its multi-levels of glass, marble and fluorescent lights, is imaginative rather than literal. A square of girders rise and fall in different configurations to give us a sense of elevators in motion, and a balcony-like platform suggests height and skyline. Somehow, this all transforms into a series of other locations smoothly and without compromise.

The cast, under Kenneth W. Risch's direction, brings this capacious corporate realm enjoyably to life.

In the demanding role of Chuck Baxter, who tells his own story and appears in nearly every scene, Eric Haston creates a believable mixture of innocence and aspiration. He easily holds the stage -- as does Cynthia Owen as Fran Kubelik, Baxter's enamorata. Owens projects a mixture of gutsiness and vulnerability. And in "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," their quiet duet sung to simple guitar accompaniment, the two capture the new, tender and intimate mood that now infuses the once "venal" apartment.

Director Risch plays the part of Sheldrake, and his convincing portrayal of the morally corrupt boss provides the necessary counter-weight to the lovers.

Providing solid supporting work are John Hammons, Steven McCreary, Adriano Mulino, Barry Howell, Mary Gibas, Susan Domangue and John Lovett as the incredulous, wise-cracking Dr. Dreyfuss.

Burt Bacharach's music is well-served by Barbara Moras' musical direction. Elizabeth Parent's costumes and Daniel Zimmer's lighting round out this accomplished revival.

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