Love and marriage

You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running

Actors Jaime Dunbar, left, and Tom Strekal in “The Shock of Recognition.”

Actors Jaime Dunbar, left, and Tom Strekal in “The Shock of Recognition.”

Rated 4.0

The title of Robert Anderson’s You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running tells you everything you need to know about its themes. Say it to yourself, and you can immediately picture a little domestic vignette: a mildly exasperated person interrupting the flow of a jabbering spouse for the millionth time. There’s an undertone of weary familiarity, the compulsion to correct the other person’s annoying habit mixing with a resigned acknowledgment that they’ll never change. It’s a perfect title for a collection of four one-act plays, all set in the 1960s, that examines the relationships between spouses who know each other like the backs of their hands—or just think they do.

In “The Shock of Recognition,” fretful playwright Jack Barnstable (Jaime Dunbar) battles producer Herb Miller (Tom Strekal) over a crucial scene in his new play, where an irked husband walks out of the bathroom naked to tell his wife, “You know I can’t hear you when the water’s running!” As a hopeful young actor (Ryan Lynskey) auditions for the role, the three men end up comparing their marriages and pondering the unique vulnerability and intimacy between married couples. Lynskey gives a lively comic performance underscored with sexual tension, right down to his heart-patterned boxers; the discomfort his young, healthy body causes the older men gives the lie to Jack’s dismissal of the male organs as “pathetic and ridiculous.”

“The Footsteps of Doves” takes place in a bedding store, where husband and wife, Harriet (Beth Petersen) and George (Robin Scott Miles), are shopping for separate twin beds after 25 years of sleeping together. Not surprisingly, their marriage is troubled, and although George is initially more dedicated to saving their relationship, a chance encounter with a sexy young shopper (Elizabeth Tonkinson) opens his eyes to the possible benefits of sleeping apart. Petersen and Miles give sympathetic and believable performances as affectionate but frustrated spouses at the end of their marriage. The setting is well chosen: a crossroads where public and private lives meet, and the implications of a married couple buying separate beds is shamefully apparent.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” depicts Chuck (Jaime Dunbar) and Edith (Teri Levy) rehashing a well-worn argument about how involved they need to be in their teenaged kids’ sex lives. Hippie daughter Clarice (Elizabeth Tonkinson), whose sexually active lifestyle unsettles her father, brings a vaguely women’s-lib flavor to the mix, and a letter from their rebellious son, away at college, adds some post-war generational conflict. It’s too many themes for one short piece, and none of them gets adequately developed; the profusion of bad wigs is a bit distracting, too.

In “I’m Herbert,” elderly couple Herbert (Norm Subotky) and Muriel (Carla Wilson) take the term “unreliable narrator” to new heights. Married late in life, the two sit in rocking chairs and gently squabble about each other’s misremembered past, calling each other by the names of previous spouses and arguing about places they’ve gone (or not gone) together. The dialogue gets tedious as it plays repetitively on the same jokes, but the poignant ending shows them sweetly, if incorrectly, reminiscing about a trip they took together to Venice.

“I’m Herbert," perhaps, illustrates the underlying message of these four pieces: Despite conflict—and maybe because of it—it’s possible to be happy together in the end. Assuming, of course, your spouse doesn’t mind being called by the wrong name.