Return Engagements author Bernard Slade found success on television with The Partridge Family, The Flying Nun, and Bewitched, but he hit Broadway gold with Same Time, Next Year, a comedy that follows an extramarital affair through a course of once-a-year meetings. In Return Engagements, Slade continues to mine the comically fertile field of romance outside of marriage, but instead of the “same time,” this play is all about the “same place.” As director Brian Harwell summarizes it, the show is about “Four actors. Nine characters. Three intersecting story lines. Four decades. One room.” That room is a guest room in Stratford, Ontario, which sees a series of visits and returns by the characters, and, like every no-tell hotel, it is ripe for ambiguities, mixed motives, and unexpected disclosures.
A full house Saturday night was game for the fun and rode the laughs and heart-on-your-sleeve emotions for all they were worth. The capable cast includes Santa Barbara stage familiars Tiffany Story and Sean O’Shea, as well as Heather Heyerdahl and George Coe. Each of these actors plays two very dissimilar roles (Story plays three), and much of the color in the piece is due to this spectrum of characterizations. Coe plays both a hormone-addled bellhop and a stuffy British theater critic; Heyerdahl is a neurotic actress and a cool analyst; O’Shea plays both a lonely construction worker and a nerdy dentist; while Story covers a Polish immigrant, an airhead bombshell, and a young attorney. The gifted Story once again turns in very funny performances. Her Polish-saturated fractured English, for example, was completely believable, and hilariously effective.
The joy of Return Engagements is not only the steady stream of expected one-liners, but the tight and imaginative writing that continues to reveal surprises. And while the energy of comedy is always counterbalanced with a core of sentimentality in this genre, Slade takes the latter to a deeper level here with genuinely touching inquiries about enduring love, frustrated dreams, and missed opportunities.