The Purple Rose is twenty years old this year. If it were a person, it would be old enough to vote and almost old enough to drink. And maybe that’s why it seems to be acting out a little bit this year. Earlier this year the Purple Rose staged an audaciously bloody piece of rough urban gallows humor called Corktown, zestfully drenched in sight and sound effects by director Guy Sanville.
Some Couples May, by Carey Crim, at first blush, seems to be back in more familiar Purple Rose territory, a sedate suburban drama of quiet anguish. Emily and David (Rhiannon Ragland and Bill Simmons) are a rich and infertile couple whose frantic pursuit of parenthood has taken over their lives as they struggle through a series of torturous IVF treatments. Their troubles are contrasted with those of two other couples: David’s slacker brother Henry and wife Faye (Alex Leydenfrost and Michelle Mountain), who can’t seem to stop reproducing, and whose dreams of doing anything else with their lives are swirling down the drain; and David and Henry’s parents (Jan Radcliff and Jim Porterfield), whose lives are beginning to devolve into the full-time job of staving off terminal illness. Crim, daughter of long-time Channel 4 news anchor Mort Crim, is a favorite in the Rose’s talent stable. She wrote two other plays for the theater: Growing Pretty (2008) and Wake (2009). (All four Purple Rose plays this season are world premieres by playwrights with Michigan connections, and all three of them so far have been set in the Detroit area.)
I said “seems to be” back there because laced throughout Some Couples May, like a drawstring pulling a slack corset tight, is a wicked little plotline that’s neither sedate nor stereotypically suburban, involving a lot of leather, thigh-high boots, and whip cracking. The naughty sprite who gets to wear this get-up is Aphrodite Nikolovski, who is not only a bright and fun presence, but invests with surprising credibility her character’s philosophy that life is better when taken with a bracing dose of torture.
Without her, Some Couples May wouldn’t quite stand on its own. Whenever Aphrodite (whose character is much less aptly named Isabel) isn’t on stage, the play tends to settle into a track laid down by a million soapy Lifetime theme-of-the-week dramas, as Crim tries to tackle too many big issues with dialogue that isn’t up to the job. Emily is often more of a Kuebler-Ross five-stages-of-grief machine than a believable woman, and both Emily and Faye are reduced to constant, tearful hormonal outbursts. Radcliff, Simmons, and Porterfield fare slightly better at crafting characters out of thin material. Leydenfrost, playing the smallest of the parts, is left entirely at sea by playwright Crim, who continually alludes to his character’s backstory, but gives him no lines to make any of it relevant.
Fortunately, you don’t have to see Some Couples May without Isabel/Aphrodite. Her salty whip work keeps enough scenes taut and trim to make up for the limp moments.