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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Stage review

‘Birthday Boy’ wraps itself in sitcom-like surprises

CHRISTY WRIGHT

James Ludwig and Tara Franklin in Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of “Birthday Boy.’’

STOCKBRIDGE - Every office has one: a sardonic, passive-aggressive malcontent who gripes covertly about how dull the work is and how boring he finds his fellow employees. On “The Office,’’ Ryan comes closest to the “too cool for school’’ archetype, but he at least exhibits an intriguing felonious streak. The drone protagonist at the heart of Chris Newbound’s supposed comedy “Birthday Boy,’’ a premiere presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group, can boast no such distinction. This particular stealth-snarker is himself too boring to carry a story line. His banter is feeble and generic; his predicament, once it finally presents itself, is dispiritingly banal.

The “boy’’ in question is just-shy-of-40-year-old Matt (James Ludwig, whose arsenal of facial expressions appears limited to a Jack Lemmony look of wedged-eyebrow quizzicality). Matt works at “a fairly successful start-up webzine communications company in a small Western city,’’ or so the script advises. Neither the dialogue nor the program nor the ultra-generic break-room set gives any hint of specificity.

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A younger co-worker, Melora, engages Matt in idle chatter, perhaps with an eye to developing a further degree of intimacy. As Melora, Tara Franklin has, if anything, too many moues at her disposal, all clustered within the hey-I’m-just-one-of-the-guys flirtation mode. She never stops cutesily grimacing, stopping just shy of giving Matt a friendly punch on the arm. Though not overtly on the make, Melora seems set on escalating their acquaintanceship into a friendship and possibly more. She invites Matt along on her daily runs and eventually persuades him to join her in an after-work drink, over which she inquires about the state of his marriage while faux-reluctantly divulging the soap-opera-ish details of her own. Can you see where this is going? Yes, a mile away.

Meanwhile, Matt’s wife, Arianne (Keira Naughton), a college professor, is fending off the cartoonish overtures of a besotted student (Nick Dillenburg adds a much-needed jolt of energy to the generally humdrum proceedings). Arianne is also busy setting up a surprise birthday party for her husband, who - being AWOL on his after-hours idyll with Melora - ends up a no-show.

The party debacle, with its Beckettian wait and dwindling head count, might be fun to witness, but we only get to hear about it secondhand. Afterward, Arianne, a bit of a termagant, is raking her late-returning spouse over the coals when a leftover guest makes a surprise appearance, causing her to faint. When next encountered in Act 2, she’s in a wheelchair being delivered to a hospital room for a battery of “routine’’ exams, including, apparently, an emergency pregnancy test. (All this for a mere faint? Where do the rest of us sign up for this level of health care?)

It’s best to leave the plot - such as it is - hanging right there. The play as a whole suffers from a case of vapidity complicated by muddled motives. There are few experiences more taxing to dedicated theatergoers than a sitcom premise stretched arduously into a full-length format - except perhaps a play that starts out comedic (at least in intent), then tries to make the leap to pop-psych profundity.

“The only thing we can rely on is that change does happen,’’ Arianna intones wisely, after her ordeal. Yes, that - and the welcome certainty that eventually the curtain must fall. Amen to her further observation: “We’ve had enough drama for one night.’’

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at sandy@sandymacdonald.com.

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