Separate Beds, a relationship comedy by M.J. Cruise that lacks the absurdity of a farce and the insight of a drama, may stir self-recognition among a few long coupled audience members. (If so, you should get yourself to a marriage counselor right away.) But it’s far more likely that Ernie and Twink, the tedious husband and wife enduring conjugal troubles in this staging by Melanie MacQueen, recall that couple you avoid because they won’t stop harping on each other.
At curtain rise, Ernie (Daniel Leslie) and Twink (Mona Lee Wylde) find themselves on a Caribbean cruise, doggedly trying to celebrate their thirtieth anniversary amid worries over their struggling hardware store back home. Twink, exhausted by playing the cheerleader, is hoping the vacation will reignite the spark in their tepid marriage and energize Ernie to save the store.
Soon enough they meet another couple, Blake and Beth (unseen by us) who represent everything Twink wants to be: glamorously successful, untethered from family obligations, and still googly-eyed romantics after 10 years. But here comes the twist: In Act Two, Ernie and Twink transform into Blake and Beth. Spoiler alert: Their diamonds-and-champagne marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The premise sounds promising enough, if rote, except that together Ernie and Twink prove deeply tiresome. As the man sitting next to me observed at intermission, it’s hard to overcome that much negativity. Their squabbles are not ludicrous enough to offer any real entertainment value, and so their interminable sniping simply becomes punishing.
The script’s structural flaws are reinforced by the production’s missteps. Most lethal to the show’s pacing is Jeff G. Rack’s odd set design, which requires total dismantling each time the setting switches from the stateroom to the cruise ship’s main dining hall. We’re subjected to this set change at least a half-dozen times so as to open up a hidden alcove behind the headboards — which then goes largely unused in the subsequent cafeteria scene. The stage itself feels empty at times, and John Schroeder’s sound design does nothing to dispel this impression: Only occasionally do we hear the sort of ambient bustling one might expect from a busy cruise ship.
The performers do try hard, with some success. Aided by Michèle Young’s regal gowns, Wylde vividly transforms from Twink’s grating neediness to Beth’s self-possessed elegance, producing one of the show’s rare moments of depth with some wistful self-reflection about sacrifices in her marriage. Leslie’s transition to Blake is less pronounced, partly since the actor’s down-home likeability makes it harder for him to evince the sleaze the role requires.
Cruising culture is ripe for parody, but in this flat production, Ernie and Twink’s marriage isn’t the only thing that’s lost its sizzle.