Jeni (Dre Slaman, left) and Val (Dana Hooley) have lots to discuss as they seek a legal civil partnership.Diversionary Theatre's The Marriage Bed is as formulaic a romantic comedy as you'll find—a London lesbian couple air their differences on getting hitched as the day of their civil union approaches. Exes, a huge age disparity and an unsuspecting family are only a few of the obstacles that get lots of play here; take out the gay element, and many times, this Nona Sheppard script could pass for a mediocre piece about a straight couple's personal inventory as they make their way to the altar.
But damned if this show doesn't work, and quite nicely. In the first place, Dana Hooley is on fire as an over-age, working-class type with cold feet, and Sheppard's generous background material gives us more than ample reason to take both girls seriously. The Marriage Bed's plot may be unremarkable, but that's the point—the simplicity lays the groundwork for the strong production values, the compelling under-stories and the thorough examination of two people's personal values as they contemplate the biggest step of their lives.
Jeni (Dré Slaman) and Val (Hooley) have been together for seven years, and to look at the two, you'd wonder why and how. Frumpy, pudding-faced Val, 55, is a sailor's granddaughter and an ex-schoolteacher who operates a London subway station. Thirty-something Jeni is an up-and-coming lawyer of East Indian descent, divorced from a successful man and drop-dead gorgeous. Their differences fester as the big day looms—Val declares she doesn't want to be tied to anyone; Jeni, ever the bride, invited 100 people to the ceremony and has visions of wedding dresses. There's one other little detail: Jeni is not yet out to her family, and she can only guess what her traditionalist mom will think about it all.
Mom, in fact, is a third character here, in the form of a puppet that Jeni operates. The analogy couldn't capture Jeni's sense of whimsy more completely, and the comic contrast comes on the heels of Val's heartfelt misgivings: “I contented myself,” she says, “with berating my heterosexual friends that got married because they betrayed me and the cause by doing something I was prevented from doing.”
“The cause” culminated in 2004 with the United Kingdom's Civil Partnership Act, enacted the following year. It outlines same-sex couples' rights and responsibilities to one another, the bulk of which are identical to those in a legal marriage. Sheppard is careful to describe them in user-friendly language, and she wisely assigns those speeches to lawyer Jeni as a character-development device. Slaman shines in this sequence, abandoning the legalist's demeanor for that of the loving partner, equally daunted by the prospect of forever together.
The Archies' “Sugar Sugar” is a universally terrible tune, but trust me: It serves its purpose here. It so happens that it's Jeni and Val's song, and it's as unlikely a signature piece as the couple are unlikely a match. Director Rosina Reynolds and her cast and crew find all kinds of contradictions like this, and they exploit them with a sense of fun and panache that absolutely trumps the unpromising plot.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Feb. 14. The Marriage Bed runs through Feb. 28 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $29-$33.www.diversionary.org. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.