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CLO Cabaret's 'Tomato' peels back layers of relationship

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Robin Abramson as Annabelle and Gregory Johnstone as Jeff in CLO Cabaret's 'You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!' Credit: CLO Cabaret
Robin Abramson as Annabelle and Gregory Johnstone as Jeff in CLO Cabaret's 'You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!' Credit: CLO Cabaret

Van Kaplan is always looking for the perfect match.

As executive producer of both Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the CLO Cabaret, it's part of his job to pair audience interests with shows that are the proper size for either the huge Benedum Center stage or the more-intimate Cabaret at Theater Square.

A small cast show with big laughs is the perfect fit for the CLO Cabaret, Kaplan says. He is directing “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!,” which begins performances Thursday at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.

Written by writers/actors and long-time married couple Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn, “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!” is their semi-autobiographical look at the pitfalls, perils and occasional delights that couples experience in long-haul committed relationships.

In 75 minutes, the show takes a light and humorous look at Jeff and Annabelle, unlikely partners with opposing personalities who negotiate their way through the conflicts that come with romance, money and children while keeping their relationship intact.

“Anybody who is married or in a relationship is going to see (her or himself) on stage,” Kaplan says. “From the first second, you know they love each other and enjoy playing with each other.”

It's all done with a light hand and an upbeat attitude, says Gregory Johnstone, who plays Jeff.

Johnstone has previously appeared with CLO Cabaret in “Shear Madness.” But he's most often seen in more-serious productions such as last summer's “Golden Dragon” with Quantum Theatre and “Grey Zone” with barebones productions.

“I like playing a hopeless romantic. It's fun, really sweet,” Johnstone says “It's fun to play a sweet character who's head-over-heels in love with his wife.”

Appearing opposite him as Annabelle is Robin Abramson, who also is best known for her work in dramas. Although most recently seen in Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre's production of the comedy “The School for Lies,” she has performed at City Theatre in “Maple and Vine,” “Time Stands Still,” “Mary's Wedding” and “Blackbird” and with Quantum Theatre for “Electric Baby” and “When the Rain Stops Falling.”

“It's a nice change, a fun change. It doesn't require dying or crying,” Abramson says of her role as Annabelle. “I like how clever it is. These are two incredibly funny people (who are) a million times funnier than I am.”

As the show progresses, Jeff and Annabelle encounter real difficulties and differences.

“It's not so light that it's cotton candy and doesn't have substance,” Johnstone says.

“People should come because it highlights the best parts about being married to someone different (from) you,” Abramson says.

Fitting the play's multiple locations onto a compact playing area has required inventiveness in staging the show on the Cabaret stage, Kaplan says.

But the size of the room is also a bonus, Kaplan says: “The beauty of this is its incredibly intimate. I like to think of this as a conversation with the audience. It makes it fun and pulls the audience in.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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