A tidy romantic dramedy that’s become a staple for regional-theater revivals, Bernard Slade’s play Same Time, Next Year is built around the simple gimmick of checking in with a couple every five years over the course of the two decades in which they meet for annual adulterous trysts. Both are happily married, and we’re meant to like them because they didn’t mean to fall in love with each other during their first chance meeting, so the play gives two actors equally sized roles that are sympathetic and textured. Whether the roles are actually substantial is debatable, and the superficiality of the piece is particularly evident in the film adaptation.
Penned by Slade with few adjustments for cinematic presentation, and directed with characteristic sensitivity by Robert Mulligan, Same Time, Next Year stars Ellen Burstyn, a holdover from the Broadway production, and Alan Alda, a replacement for the stage show’s leading man, Charles Grodin. Seen outside of the confines of a live theater, where the combination of star power and Neil Simon-esque writing probably made the play go down quite smoothly, Same Time, Next Year seems contrived and shallow, even though it’s consistently entertaining.
Since Doris (Burstyn) and George (Alda) meet in the early ’50s and the final scene takes plays in the mid-’70s, Slade uses the characters as prisms for historical milestones: Doris goes through a hippie phase before embracing Women’s Lib, while George transitions from uptight conservatism to mind-expanding liberalism after his family is affected by the Vietnam War. Simply by virtue of how much time they spend onscreen, Doris and George emerge as (somewhat) specific individuals, but they’re also vehicles for Slade’s vanilla speechifying about the Big Issues of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
This introduction of sociopolitical heft into the story, particularly during the second half, is helpful because the cutesy trope of Doris and George meeting for sex once a year would have lost its romantic fizz otherwise. Echoing a problem found in Simon’s work, however, Same Time, Next Year ends up in narrative limbo, neither deep enough to be meaningful nor sufficiently uproarious to be a comedy classic. It’s merely pleasant, with an endearing core of reflection and sweetness.
That said, the piece is elevated by expert acting: Burstyn infuses the movie with femininity and warmth, illustrating the myriad ways women’s roles in American life changed in the postwar era, and Alda delivers his signature mixture of gently neurotic intellectualism and pitch-perfect comic timing. Thanks to their work and Mulligan’s careful dramaturgy, there’s enough humanity amid the slick professionalism to make this film worthwhile.
Same Time, Next Year: GROOVY