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Wendy Welch and Bob Hess plumb the mysteries of this book and their marriage in Stage West’s Sexy Laundry.

My other duties at this publication have kept me away from reviewing theater for a while, but I got back on that horse this past weekend with Stage West’s Sexy Laundry, which is among the first Fort Worth productions of 2016. I’m afraid it wasn’t an inspiring beginning to the New Year. Given how this troupe has recently staged plays that tackled thorny issues, it’s understandable that they wanted to put on something cozier, perhaps to cleanse the fans’ palate. Still, this comedy proves too insubstantial and predictable to fit the purpose.

Running at roughly 80 minutes without an intermission, the play takes place entirely within the confines of a room at an expensive hotel that Alice (Wendy Welch) has booked for herself and her engineer husband, Henry (Bob Hess). She feels that their marriage has gone stale after 25 years and three kids, so she has checked them in with a copy of Sex for Dummies, plus a few other marital aids. Yet every time she tries to initiate an exercise from the book, he gets distracted by the room’s extravagance and chintzy fake-Eastern décor, at one point breaking things off to call the front desk and complain about the towels being too thin.

This premise doesn’t allow for much in the way of creative stage design, though there is one moment late on when Clare Floyd DeVries’ seemingly static set suddenly bursts into colored lights and techno music after Henry uses what he thinks is the TV remote. Other than that, this two-hander relies on its cast. A co-production with Addison’s WaterTower Theatre, it uses the same actors who performed this play in Addison last February and again in November. Hess (who played multiple roles in Amphibian Stage Productions’ Don Quixote show) and Welch (last seen here in Stage West’s Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike) have had plenty of time to settle into these characters, and their rapport feels easy. I could have used a bit more venom in the exchanges when Alice and Henry consider ending their marriage, but their efforts are considered and well-taken. I also laughed quite hard when, after some prodding from Alice and the book, Henry settles on a name for his penis.

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That bit notwithstanding, the material isn’t up to scratch. This play by Canada’s Michele Riml is short on laugh lines and long on hackneyed observations about men and women and what makes a good marriage. The effect is watching a bad stand-up comic with the punchlines removed from his act. Nor do the set pieces, like Alice’s account of being humiliated at the gym in front of two hot young women, have the power they’re supposed to have. There’s a late line from Henry that just made me cringe: “When you visit a place often enough, you know what it becomes? It becomes home.”

It so happens that I just got through watching a British film called 45 Years that is screening in Fort Worth next month and offers far deeper insights into a long-term marriage than this play does. A dramatist can do that without breaking the confines of a comfy piece of entertainment like this one. Sadly, despite some honest efforts, Sexy Laundry goes down as a misfire.

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