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Tucson Weekly It Had To Be Yooooou...

Invisible Theatre sullies its reputation on a nasty bit of trash.

By Margaret Regan

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  TOWARDS THE END of the first act of It Had to Be You at Invisible Theatre, the hapless male lead cries out, "I feel like I'm caught in the middle of a low-budget horror film."

Vito had my sympathy. I was as desperate as he to escape this dreadful affair, which takes the novel tack of using psychological torture as a comic device. For two painful hours, the play traps players and audience alike in a claustrophobic New York apartment presided over by what's supposed to be a charming eccentric. This lady, Theda, has set out to force the gentleman to love her by a series of ingenious devices, including hiding his trousers in the freezer, locking the door and extracting revenge from him "for all the injustices women have had to put up with." Ha ha.

But don't mistake this 1981 fiasco by the wife-and-husband writing team of Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna for a feminist tract. Rather, it's a misogynistic blast from the past, a missive from those dark days of the patriarchy when plucky gals on stage and screen had one goal in mind: manipulating men into marriage. Oh, sure, Theda is a little more modern. She wants to be a playwright as well as a wife. The catch is she can't write beans without a man's help.

And then this play is a lot creepier than those old flicks. It Had to Be You may not be a horror movie, as poor Vito puts it, but it's nonetheless full of horrors. Sexual manipulation, verbal abuse, mental cruelty: The authors happily play them all for laughs. They bill their work as a romantic comedy. Hostage siege is more like it.

It's a mystery why IT would sully its reputation for quality work with a piece of trash as nasty as this one. Yet the company has given it a respectful production, directed by Gail FitzHugh, and summoned up two of its best actors to play its two roles. Jack Neubeck, who distinguished himself last season in Lost in Yonkers, is Vito Pignoli, the man trapped in the archetypal female lair. Vito's a debonair middle-aged New Yorker who's made a killing in advertising. Naturally, he secretly hates himself for being a failed writer and a lousy father.

The woman who preys on these weaknesses is Theda Blau, a kooky commercial actress who's a self-described loser and late bloomer. Played by IT artistic director Susan Claassen, Theda is anxiously getting on to the end of her child-bearing years. She determines to catch a man--and recharge her career--after the biblical Judith tells her in a dream that she's "at the top of the list of losers." Ha ha.

The minute Theda sets eyes on Vito at an audition she knows that he's the one for her. (A recording of the song "It Had to Be You" endlessly reinforces the point.) She lures him to her apartment and takes him for a tumble, explaining in an aside that sex is the only way to keep him there. After that, it's just a barrel o' laughs as Theda alternately sweet-talks and berates and batters the trapped Vito into realizing that she's the one for him, too. Then there's Theda's six-act play about Russia in the days of the Czar. She repeatedly inflicts excerpts from it on Vito, acting it out in a faux-Russian accent. Ha ha.

Both actors try their best with this offensive material, though Neubeck carries himself with an air of embarrassment. Claassen, apparently in the interests of authenticity, wears a demeaning sexpot outfit throughout; it's a teensy black lace teddy apparently contrived by Victoria in the throes of a nightmare. The most engaging part of the whole sorry business is the offbeat New York apartment, complete with bathtub in the living room, artfully contrived by designer James Blair. A good thing too, since the audience is forced to spend so much time there.

And have I mentioned that the fun takes place on Christmas Eve? The apartment is decked with a menorah and Christmas lights, both of which are meant to lend to the proceedings a dash of cheery holiday froth. Ha ha.

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