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Change of heart

I Love You ... a lively look at mating game

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An original musical about dating and mating, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is the kind of work that walks the thin line between the universal and the clichéd. Audiences often identify with the stuff of common experience, but the challenge for artists is to offer fresh insights instead of restating the obvious. Playwright and lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer Jimmy Roberts concern themselves with quirks of male/female relationships, which have been hot-button issues since before humankind began walking upright: There's probably a cave painting somewhere of a Cro-Magnon husband who refused to stop and ask directions to the mastodon hunt. But in the past decade, a certain sameness has crept into discussions of the gender gap, with identical jokes and situations played out in venues like Nora Ephron movies, Dave Barry columns and TV series from "thirtysomething" to NBC sitcoms.

In the wrong hands, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change would seem merely overloaded with banal observations about the battle of the sexes. Fortunately the Horizon Theatre production has such winning performances and snappy direction from Heidi Cline that it's consistently droll despite the familiarity of its themes.

The first act focuses on contemporary courtship, with a faux-Biblical reading giving way to "Cantata for a First Date." Two women (Gayle Samuels and Jill Hames) and two men (Eric D. Moore and Alan Kilpatrick) sing of dread and anticipation while dressing, primping, flossing and shaving their armpits. Moore gets an early laugh by stepping forward to croon, "But I've got bag-gage, emotional drag-gage!"

Parts of the play are pure sketches, as when workaholics Samuels and Kilpatrick, in the interest of saving time, initially decide to skip their awkward first date, then to skip to the sex and finally to skip the entire relationship. A TV commercial, like a "Saturday Night Live spoof, presents a law firm's offer to draw up contracts guaranteeing connubial satisfaction, and in a "Scared Straight" program, a prisoner tells horror stories of the single life: "I know a man who's 50 years old and just placed his 1,000th personal ad!"

Act Two shifts to marriage, babies and domestic issues, striking a tone that's less "Sex and the City" than "Everybody Loves Raymond." Moore and Samuels' comic highlight is "The Marriage Tango," in which they strike dramatic, seductive poses, only to be interrupted by the cries of their off-stage children. A tune about fractious family driving trips is enlivened by having the cast roll about the stage on chairs with casters on the legs.

Fortunately the cast stays watchable even when given the oldest of gags, with Hames proving a remarkably diverse and effervescent player. She adopts enough regional accents, from deep South to New Jersey, to amass frequent flier mileage .

Without Cline's confidence and the cast's appeal, the play's "serious" moments would become drastic misfires. Instead, Moore brings tender devotion to the middle-aged "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You?" and Hames some shy sincerity to "I Will Be Loved Tonight." The play also goes for poignancy with "The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz," which puts Samuels on a live video monitor. Despite its honest depiction of the problems in dating after divorce, the monologue slows the show to a crawl when it should be winding things up.

The less television you watch, the more enjoyment you're likely to find from the script of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, although the ensemble is perpetually pleasing. Maybe the 4-year-old show just isn't aging gracefully, staying in a market already glutted with its brand of romantic observational humor. Today, its most original aspect is the title itself.

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is playing an open run at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave., with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 8:30 p.m. Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $16-$25. 404-584-7450.

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