Time-traveling ‘Reel to Reel’ gets lost in the future

If you can never know what another couple’s marriage is like, your own can be a mystery, too. You never really know what it’s like for your partner.

That’s one of the intriguing themes in John Kolvenbach’s stylistically inventive and often poignant new play, “Reel to Reel,” world-premiering at the Magic Theatre.

In an opposites-attract scenario, Walter and Maggie meet at a party in their 20s, and the playwright takes them into the future to explore, with humor and tenderness and, thankfully, without sentimentality, an enduring 55-year relationship.

Kolvenbach enhances that exploration with low-tech sound effects; the actors themselves double as Foley artists, occasionally seated before a music stand with various sound-making implements at hand.

The device is saved from being gimmicky because it’s woven right into the life of the play: Maggie, the dominant one of the pair, says that as a kid she miked her parents’ bed to discover their secrets. She turned her obsession with sounds, which she records on an old-school tape player, and her uncanny gift for deep listening into a career as a sound-collage artist/performer.

For a playwright to conceptualize, onstage, a half-century-long relationship is indeed challenging, and Kolvenbach, who also directed the show, is only partly successful.

For example, with two actors (Zoe Winters and Andrew Pastides) portraying Maggie and Walter from their 20s and briefly into their 40s, and then another pair (Carla Spindt and Will Marchetti) when they’re in their early 80s, the viewer needs to believe in those young people turning into these old people within 80 minutes.

It’s less problematic to feel that thread in the case of Walter, who’s shy when he’s young (Pastides is charming in the role), and insecure and contemplative as he ages — Maggie, he says in his 80s, is his sole interest.

It’s more difficult to see how Winters’s larger-than-life Maggie, who seems scarily crazy in her 20s — if a man pursued a woman the way she pursues Walter, a restraining order would be required — morphs into Spindt’s serene older woman with a Mona Lisa smile. It doesn’t help that Spindt’s role is underwritten.

But there’s lots to relish in this compact vision of a life lived: a crazy-making quarrel at the 15-year mark; a hilarious recital of all the other partner’s annoying quirks; and a nonlinear and continuous flow from old to young and back again that culminates in an inspired and wistful ending.

REVIEW: Reel to Reel
Presented by: Magic Theatre
Where: Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Bldg. D., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 and 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 25
Tickets: $35 to $80
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org

Jean Schiffman
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Jean Schiffman

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