Riverfront Playhouse puts on Ken Levine's comedy 'America's Sexiest Couple' through Feb. 18
Riverfront Playhouse's production of "America's Sexiest Couple," a sparkling comedy by Emmy Award-winning writer Ken Levine, continues through Feb. 18.
Twenty-five years ago, actors Susan White and Craig McAllister were America's Sexiest Couple, starring as bickering lovers in the sitcom "Residents," Craig a laid-back surgeon and Susan an uptight nurse. Susan left the show after five years, presumably due to movie offers and ego. She hasn't spoken to Craig since then, despite the TV specials and reunions. They are in Syracuse for the funeral of one of their co-stars, and seeing each other for the first time in years. Did Susan really leave for career reasons? Was the spark of sexuality on-set reflected in their real feelings? Let's find out.
Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at Riverfront Playhouse, 11-13 S. Water Street Mall, Aurora. Tickets and information are available at www.riverfrontplayhouse.com, or call (630) 897-9496.
The cast includes Autumn Burns of Little Rock, Arkansas as Susan White; Jack T. Smith of Bloomingdale as Craig McAllister; and Jimmy Knapp of Warrenville in a supporting role. The director is Craig Gustafson, winner of the 2019 BroadwayWorld-Chicago award for Best Direction of a Play (Resident Non-Equity) for "August: Osage County."
As a television writer/producer, Levine's credits include "M*A*S*H," "Cheers," "Frasier," "The Simpsons," "Wings," "Becker" and many others. He is also a veteran baseball announcer and contributing cartoonist to the New Yorker magazine. With his partner David Issacs, Levine wrote all of the "Cheers" Bar Wars episodes, as well as "Point of View," the Emmy nominated "M*A*S*H" episode of a stay at the 4077th seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier.
Levine was interviewed about the play's production last summer in Cape May, New Jersey.
Q: While the characters are obviously different people, "America's Sexiest Couple" plays very much like "Sam and Diane at Sixty," with a fascinating, ultimately tragic memory for Susan that requires healing. Are you fond of the idea of having a reading with Ted Danson and Shelley Long? Has this already happened?
L: To be honest Ted and Shelley are now older than I envision these characters. Plus, Susan is really a combination of people. There are elements of Shelley but I wasn't picturing her when I wrote it. And it's been interesting to see different actresses portraying her differently.
Q: The play had its world premiere last July at Cape May Stage in New Jersey, starring Karen Ziemba and Bill Tatum. As a playwright, you make yourself available for long distance questions and problem-solving. Was the audience reaction what you'd hoped it would be? Did it prompt revisions, or was the play already solid?
L: I did early on in the rehearsal process but then flew to Cape May and was there for the last week of rehearsal. I made a few small changes but nothing major. Once the play opened it was locked. I was thrilled with the whole production -- from the cast, director, crew, and audience.
Q: Did the director and cast find anything in the play that was a surprise to you?
L: Each couple that performs the play give it different shadings and chemistry. At Cape May, Karen Ziemba brought emotional layers that had not been shown before and Bill Tatum got laughs out of straight lines. It was very much a dream cast.
Q: You're used to hearing a live audience laugh at your jokes on sitcoms, so is there a difference in that respect between television and theater?
L: The theater is much more intimate. In filming a sitcom in front of a live audience there are the cameras and crew standing between the actors and audience. The crowd is primarily there to see the production of a TV show. Hopefully, in theater the audience will lose itself in the story and characters. Also, in TV tapings the audience is primed to laugh going in. They know and love these characters. In a play you really have to earn your laughs. It's tougher but more rewarding.
Q: You have a good deal to say about general ageism in the TV industry … hell, in America … as well as quite a bit about the fate of women in TV as they age. I remember your Thankless Sitcom Wives blogpost, as well as the Cheers finale In-the-Boston-Window story, both of which appear in the play. These are obviously important issues for you. How have they affected your career?
L: It's the circle of life. It sure didn't bother me when I was in my mid-20s breaking into the business, thus pushing older writers aside. Sensibilities change, target audiences change, and truthfully I'm at a point in my life where I no longer want to work 50-60 hour weeks on staff. Not that anyone is offering. But that's OK. Thankfully I don't have four ex-wives, six college-age children, or an urge to bet on the Cubs.
Q: Your daughter Annie is a writer. The business is always tough for everybody, but has the playing field leveled at all for women?
L: It's certainly better now than when I broke in. But I've worked with women writers on practically every show I've been on. Not because I'm enlightened, but because they are wonderful writers and deserve every opportunity they receive.
Q: When possible, you travel across the country to see your plays onstage and have post-show talk backs if requested. This is incredibly supportive for the theaters. Has this dedication had generally positive results for you?
L: Absolutely. I so appreciate the hard work that goes into a full production of a play -- from the cast to the crew -- and I'm thrilled to be able to personally thank them and see what they've done. And it's great to hear the laughter. That's really why I do it.
Q: The inevitable: What's next for you?
L: I have two new plays, a comedy-mystery, "What is Murder?" and a new political-romantic-comedy set in the late '60s called "Love and Tear Gas." I also do a weekly podcast, "Hollywood and Levine," and for the last couple of years I've been a contributing cartoonist to the New Yorker magazine.