In his funny and touching World Premiere comedy Everybody Say “Cheese!”, Garry Marshall takes an affectionate look back at the mid-1960s, a time of discovery for women and confusion for men, a time when the “fairer sex” discovered as if overnight that no, a woman’s place wasn’t always in the home. Feminists like Betty Friedan were spreading the message that women could be anything they wanted to be, and housewives like Harriet Keenan were listening.

Originally written in 1972 as a contemporary story under the title Shelves, the newly redubbed Everybody Say “Cheese!” is now a “memory comedy” told through the eyes of Harriet’s gray-haired daughter Gail, who quips that back in 1965 when her mother was about to turn fifty, fifty was like seventy is today and that in 2009, “dead is the new eighty.”  

With Marshall (Happy Days) writing the script, it should come as no surprise that this will be an evening of one-liners like the above quip, most of them laugh-getters.  What may very well surprise many audience members is how very real Harriet and her family end up being, and how resonant her story remains, forty-four years later.

A shift in lighting signals that we have gone back in time, back to the turbulent 1960s. It’s an otherwise ordinary afternoon in their lower class Bronx apartment when Harriet (DeeDee Rescher) suddenly informs Leo (Joe Regalbuto), her husband of twenty-seven years, that she wants a divorce.

Though Harriet’s announcement comes as a shock to Leo, there have been recent signs that Harriet is no longer the contented housewife and mother everyone expects her to be.  She’s been taking meditation classes (prompting her to burst out chanting “Om, om, om” at random moments), tap-dancing lessons, and a class in handicrafts. She’s also been writing poems, one titled “Garbage” that Leo thinks is, well, garbage. 

Leo is naturally relieved when Harriet apologizes to him for acting “a little strange” lately, but his relief is short-lived.  “I was looking for something, but in all the wrong places,” Harriet informs him, and she now knows that there’s only one answer—divorce. 

Leo is in shock. How can Harriet be dissatisfied with their married life and why on earth is she talking about looking for a job?  “You’re my wife,” he informs her. “That’s your job,” to which Harriet responds, “I wasn’t hired to work here.  We weren’t married in an employment agency. For twenty-seven years I’ve helped others find their dream. Now it’s my turn.” 

Lest Leo think that this is just another of her “cuckoo” ideas, Harriet reveals that she’s already gone to see a lawyer recommended by her hairstylist and been told that in 1965 New York, there’s only one quick, inexpensive, and practical way to get a divorce—adultery. All Harriet needs is a picture of Harry and a woman in flagrante delicto.

Since Leo is the type of man never to never even look at another woman, this would seem to be rather a tall order, but fortunately the lawyer, Artie Hazeltine (Joel Johnstone), has a side business (photography) and a hooker more than willing to pose as Leo’s paramour in exchange for cash.

In the course of Everybody Say “Cheese!”’s two acts, we meet said call-girl (a scene-stealing Roberta Valderrama) as well as Leo and Harriet’s neighbor Charlie (John Capodice), their married daughter Gail (Heather Corwin), and Gail’s husband Barry (Cyrus Alexander).  A good deal of slapstick ensues, but also some very real moments which reveal Leo and Harriet as fully three-dimensional characters. Everybody Say “Cheese!” is some of the best writing Marshall has ever done.

It is, refreshingly, not a movie script posing as a stage play, but a classically structured two-acter, each act unfolding on a single set in real time. The play takes place in a single afternoon and night, during which time Leo and Harriet learn more about each other than they may have during all the years of their marriage.

Still, with Marshall writing the script and crackerjack director Steve Zuckerman (hundreds and hundreds of TV sitcom credits) at the helm, Everybody Say “Cheese!” is first and foremost a comedy.

When a very young Hazeltine shows up at the Keenans’ in tennis garb, Leo wonders, “Didn’t I see you in Little League?”  When Gail informs her mother that “Barry and I have been married for over a year and I haven’t had an orgasm,” Harriet replies, “I’m not shocked. It just wasn’t that popular in my generation,” to which Gail counters, “I’m supposed to have an orgasm! It’s the 19-damn-60s!” Then there’s Lee Lynn, one hoot of a call-girl, who arrives with frizzed hair sticking out almost a foot in all directions, a chest cold, and one heck of a chest for the cold to reside in. (Lee Lyn would love it if she could use Vicks VapoRub, but her clients don’t appreciate slippery boobs, and a vaporizer in the room is a definite no-no in her business.)

Regalbuto (best known for his ten years on Murphy Brown) and Rescher (a regular sitcom guest) manage to be funny and achingly real at the same time. Rescher particularly gives a performance that begins as merely comedic and develops into a truly three-dimensional portrait of a woman whose sunny exterior hides more than a little pain and frustration.  Regalbuto is wonderfully blue-collar as a man whose one wish is “that I can die without something happening to me,” words which echo Harriet’s earlier comment that “We’re at a point in our lives when I’m ready to live and you’re ready to die.”  

The supporting cast is equally fine, Capodice as older neighbor (and sounding-board) Charlie, Johnstone as eager-beaver (and not particularly ethical) lawyer Hazeltine, Corwin as sexually frustrated (and confused) daughter Gail, and Alexander as man-of-few words (at least at first) Barry.

Still, as featured performances goes, you won’t find a better, more outrageous one than Valderrama’s. As Lee Lynn, the actress has concocted a one-of-a-kind technique for clearing out sinus congestion that must be seen (and heard) to be believed, and a great comic nonchalance about her character’s profession. (You can call Lee Lynn call-girl, you can call her hooker, but don’t you dare use the “w” word to describe the job she’s a whiz at.) Valderrama doesn’t just steal scenes, she hijacks them, and earns deserved applause at her final exit. 

Keith Mitchell’s apartment set is a finely-detailed wonder, its nearly three-dozen shelves filled with prop designer Anna McGill’s carefully chosen knickknacks.  (Leo’s way of relieving stress is to build yet another shelf and nail it up on a wall.)  Terri A. Lewis’s costumes are just right for time and place, Gail’s and Lee Lynn’s mid-60s garb contrasting with Harriet’s shirtwaist dresses still situating her character, at least fashion-wise, in the 1950s.  (Lee Lynn’s hooker duds are a wonder of imagination and poor taste.) Nick McCord’s lighting and David Beaudry’s sound design are both first-rate.

With its well-developed characters, terrific performances, spot-on timing, and topnotch design, Garry Marshall’s Everybody Say “Cheese!” ends the Falcon’s “Bringin’ The Funny All Comedy Season” on a high note indeed.

Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
March 25, 2009
                                                       Photos: Cheryl Games

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