Theater Review - Topher Payne makes Token attempt to comprehend marriage

Tokens of Affection has a slow start, but delivers in second act

In the program notes for his world premiere comedy Tokens of Affection, young Atlanta playwright/director Topher Payne describes how his new marriage inspired him to write about a couple's lifelong commitment: "It scarcely seems possible that you could make a vow in your twenties and manage to live up to it in your seventies. I get nervous renewing my cell phone contract for two years."

With Tokens of Affection, the closer Payne focuses on the long-haul challenges of relationships, the more wit and wisdom emerge from the action. But Payne structures the action around sitcom-style developments that work against the play's strengths, particularly during the first half. Tokens of Affection could be compared to the kind of marriage that gets better with time.

In Tokens, Manhattan-based graphic designer Charlie Garrett (Matt Myers) faces a big deadline to render some fire-breathing sea turtles for a new video game. Unfortunately, his parents' unfolding marital crisis constantly disrupts his work. First, his uptight sister Claire (Kelly Criss) calls from her Connecticut home, breaking the news that their parents are incommunicado. Then Charlie's father Frank (John Stephens) shows up at his doorstep, bearing a suitcase and a thin excuse about being in town for a business trip.

Their mother Jackie (Judy Leavell) shows up at Claire's for a similarly uninvited visit, and both locations feature labored shtick about the parents getting on their grown children's nerves. Frank finally admits that he and Jackie are contemplating divorce, so Charlie and Claire attempt to reconcile the older couple for the sake of everybody's sanity.

The play's first half feels like marking time, and includes an extended subplot about Charlie's friendship with his neighbor Rita (Shelly McCook), a widowed middle-age actress. Myers and McCook may be two of Atlanta's funniest performers, but the slow-burning plot keeps them both in first gear for too long. Charlie's work pressures feel like a contrivance to give the play a false sense of urgency and make his family's indifference to his career seem less amusing than passive-aggressive.

Tokens' second act improves so much, it may be worth skipping the first one outright. Payne's direction sets a faster pace and better accommodates the increasingly silly plot points. Jackie, an elegant but judgmental control freak, plays a more prominent role, with Leavell giving the role both an aristocratic archness and flashes of tenderness. She's recognizable as the kind of loving family member who's easier to deal with over a long distance. The second act also gives the characters more opportunities to talk about the nature of marriage, from senior citizens looking back to younger people looking forward.

Payne crafts some droll observations about generational differences, such as the way younger folks don't memorize phone numbers, thanks to their cell phones. Claire's husband Bruce gets excited over video game expansion packs, a detail that keeps the character from being a suburban cliché (along with Googie Uterhardt's patented oddball energy in the role). Perhaps the playwright identifies too closely with the younger characters, however, since he emphasizes the simple things that unwed Charlie learns about relationships, when Jackie and Frank's shared life would hold more complex lessons.

Jackie voices frustration that Frank stopped bringing her flowers, and while Payne makes a running joke of characters pointing out "It's a metaphor," the floral imagery ultimately feels like a substitute for deeper insight. Tokens of Affection better knows the conventions of stage comedy than the mysteries behind how long-term unions survive both the better and the worse.

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