In "Courting Chris," the slight but agreeable new romantic comedy by local playwright Sam Schwartz Jr. now at the Church Street Theater, Sean O'Brien is a nice single man in his twenties whose bar chat with women consistently blows up in his face. How bad is his patter? An anecdote about wetting his pants at a theme park is a staple of his repertoire.
So what's a guy to do when he meets Ms. Right--a testy, on-the-rebound lass named Chris--and he can't trust his tongue not to embarrass him? In Sean's case, the answer seems to be to have his funny gay friend Ben do the talking for him.
Luckily, Ben (played by Jason Gilbert) is a confidant of Chris's (Christina Anderson). Equally luckily, Sean (Peter Finnegan) works as a security consultant. Before you know it, Sean and Ben are wired up better than Linda Tripp so Ben can feed Sean surefire lines of dialogue as Sean sweats it out through his first date with Chris.
This device smells a wee bit of "Cyrano de Bergerac," to be sure, and gives off more than a whiff of sitcom silliness. Much of "Courting Chris" does, yet the show (a joint production of the Theater Alliance and the Church Street Theater) never gets as annoying as you fear it might. The comedy is unfailingly gentle--there's no real hostility or aggression here, only romantic anxiety--and director Jeff Keenan's cast trusts the story enough to keep the characters bright and uncomplicated. So even though you pretty much know what's going to happen on the date (Chris will fall for Sean, but she'll really be responding to Ben, which will lead to trouble down the road), it's decent fun, anyway.
Schwartz does stop just short of one nifty discovery: The idea of a gay man giving a straight man terrific advice about how to seduce a woman is a tantalizing one that goes unexploited here--but perhaps that's another play. (In this play, the advice works because Ben knows Chris, not because Ben knows Love.)
On the other hand, when Ben, bored with hiding behind a handy folding screen in Chris's apartment, blurts out, "Oh, you have the new Donna Summer CD!"--a line that Sean instantly repeats to Chris, of course--a sublime little dance ensues. Ben revels behind the screen, Chris blissfully grooves to her music, and Sean grits his teeth, unhappily stuck dancing to someone else's tunes. It's a funny image, and as clear a picture of the characters' fundamental isolation as you could want.
The plot thickens (perhaps that's putting it too strongly) when Ben is suddenly tongue-tied by a handsome gay friend of Sean's. Sean can help, because Sean knows all about . . . Chris (Carlos Bustamente). You can imagine the confusion that follows, with two romantic marks named Chris and two uptight guys rigged with surveillance equipment pitching woo for one another.
The acting is as straightforward as the characters. Bustamente effectively plays his Chris with little more than a suave smile and modest sensitivity. His Chris is a good antidote for Ben, who is so stereotypically gay that the character is summed up when Anderson's Chris says of him, "He's like a sister to me." Still, Gilbert is deadly accurate with a punch line here.
Finnegan plays Sean as a simple doofus with a goofy grin, while Anderson takes the Meg Ryan road with her Chris (smart, flaky, with an occasional happy smile that keeps her from getting on your nerves).
If "Courting Chris" errs on the cute and eager side (and it does), at least there's always a good one-liner around the corner (like the football-averse Ben, to Bustamente's sports-minded Chris, asking who the 'Skins are playing: "The Shirts?"). Also to its credit is an aura of courtliness and bashful simplicity. Like its characters, this comedy just wants to be liked.
Courting Chris, by Sam Schwartz Jr. Directed by Jeff Keenan. Costumes, Linda Norton; lighting, Adam Magazine; composer/sound design, Jesse Terrill. With Mary Kate Grover. Through Sept. 12 at the Church Street Theater. Call 1-800-494-8497.