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Stage Review: Shades of temptation at the workplace

In Ken Levine's agile new romantic comedy, "A or B?," a world premiere at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, an interview for a high-powered job brings Abby and Ben together, but their immediate mutual attraction promises on-the-job complications: Can they ignore the attraction or give into it? And what will the result be in either case? Whatever happens, choices must be made.

Levine weaves together the consequences of each path taken into two plays in one (ending with an open door to a third), and although its theme of sexual attraction versus career professionalism carries a decidedly mixed message, this cleverly crafted play — a bit of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" meets "Sex and the City" — is a racy and ultimately good-hearted romp.

The play opens with Abby (Jules Willcox) in a form-fitting red dress, meeting Ben (Jason Dechert) in a restaurant bar to interview for the position of marketing director with Ben's product-testing firm. When it turns out that, due to a delayed text message (a certain mobile provider is lampooned more than once), Ben's partner has just hired his new affair for the job, the couple yield to their mutual attraction.

But what would have happened if Abby had worn her blue dress, gotten the job and resisted temptation?

We find out when the interview scene begins again, and as the play switches throughout between Abby in blue and Abby in red, scenes repeat with variations; the dialogue overlaps and changes with new or restated content and with shifts in emphasis.

The entertaining result is due to director Andrew Barnicle's crisp pacing, the spot-on timing of the excellent two-member cast and Levine's spicy repartee, laced with an insider's references to TV shows and, from a writer's point of view, the maddening idiosyncrasies of network executives.

(Lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick's back-and-forth tones of blue and red are equally deft. Costume and scenic designer Bruce Goodrich styles the actors in sleek and sexy fashion and conveys a sense of sophistication in the clean geometric lines of his multifunctional set beneath a silhouetted Manhattan skyline. The jazz-flavored clarity of Drew Dalzell's sound design is another plus.)

Is Abby right that office romances lead to "regret, misery and paper trails?" If "red" Abby won't give Ben the benefit of her superior marketing ideas unless he hires her, when he does hire her, can they still be romantic partners?

When "blue' Abby learns that her cat has died (the circumstances are another running joke), and struggles to keep her grief under wraps only to give way over Ben's pitch for Meow Mix, is showing emotion really the setback for women's progress in the workplace that Abby fears it is?

Like Willcox and Dechert, veteran theater director Barnicle and Levine, a television writer/producer/blogger whose voluminous credits include "M*A*S*H," "Cheers," "Frasier" and "The Simpsons," make a notably compatible partnership. The play misses the mark, however, if an authentic examination of love and equality in the workplace is intended. While both Abbys stress their determination to succeed professionally on their own merits, flirting and getting sloshed on martinis during a job interview would seem counterproductive to that goal. (Never mind that suggestive remarks and hands-on behavior from the get-go would seriously flout sexual harassment guidelines.)

But humorous sexual tension between two attractive and driven corporate over-achievers is the driving force here, and Levine and this well-timed production deliver, down to the play's surprisingly wistful conclusion: when Ben and Abby, in both the blue and red iteration, seem destined to remain star-crossed, Levine has another do-over up his sleeve, and it is executed with gentle wit and warmth.

In the end, this bubbly comedy may not have much of substance to offer about the viability of workplace romance, but it does have something to say about the quality of relationships and the substitution of instant intimacy and social-media gleanings for the pleasures of in-person mutual exploration and discovery.

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What: “A or B?”

Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

When: 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; 4 p.m., Sunday. Ends Nov. 16.

Admission: $36.50 to $44.

More info: (818) 955-8101, www.falcontheatre.com

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LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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