Review: Theatre Aspen’s ‘Same Time, Next Year’ an onstage balancing act

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesJoan Hess and James Ludwig star in the romantic comedy-drama "Same Time, Next Year," playing in the Theatre Aspen season.

ASPEN – Theatre Aspen’s production of “Same Time, Next Year” is unbalanced, and in some ways this seems intentional, even productive. The play covers an extramarital affair conducted one weekend a year over a quarter-century, in the same California lodge room, and the first liaison between the accountant George (James Ludwig) and the mom Doris (Joan Hess) takes place in 1951. This first scene isn’t promising. The dialogue is stilted, the exploration of the characters is thin, and you wonder not so much how George and Doris are going to be able to sneak away from their families for a weekend each year, but why they would want to, and why an audience would want to witness it.

Scene one, I believe, is a set-up, maybe even a clever, insightful one. As “Same Time, Next Year” proceeds, in five-year intervals, into the mid-’70s, each scene sheds light on the era. The 1951 segment could be viewed as a commentary on the popular entertainment of the time, and America as a whole – safe and on the surface.

Theatre Aspen’s version – directed by sitcom veteran and part-time Aspenite Jay Sandrich, in his third outing with the local company – never gets edgy. Bernard Slade wrote “Same Time, Next Year” in the mid-’70s, and it feels it. It doesn’t seem as if any energy were expended to refresh or update the portrayal of post-World War II America.

Instead, we are given George and Doris who, while stuck in time, develop a relationship worth caring about. The master stroke is that the two lovers care about each other. What began in scene one as a silly dalliance based on physical urges becomes something emotionally significant, an essential part of the characters’ lives, a way for them to delve into their personal growth, marital troubles, parenthood, loss. And as the relationship matures and gets more serious, so do the scenes, and 1951 can be seen as a starting point, something to build on. And something to laugh about later on.

A more troubling imbalance is between the characters. Doris is appealing in all her eras – blonde and innocent as a young woman; sexy and uninhibited in the ’60s. When, in the ’70s, she has become conflicted and uncertain over her success as a businesswoman, she comes off as vulnerable and intelligent. It is easy to see why George builds a good part of his life around his annual weekend with her.

George starts off wracked with guilt and is guilt-plagued at play’s end. His one guilt-free period, as a creature of the self-absorbed ’70s, is all about shaking off his guilt, a dramatic variation on being guilty. It was impossible for me to see what the pay-off was for Doris, and why around, say, 1952-’53, she didn’t find herself some other gentleman to have a fling with.

Not at all unbalanced was the costume design by Rebecca J. Bernstein. Her designs may have been obvious – Doris’ love-child get-up, complete with headband, for the ’60s; George’s tight pants and sweater vest for the ’70s – but they were effective and ultimately integral to the show.