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Marital comedy? 'Shut Up'!

There's nothing quite like a good hate to keep love alive, is there?

"A few years ago, 'Crash' won the Academy Award for best picture, and everybody said how wonderful it was," Annabelle Gurwitch recalls. "Jeff and I looked at each other in the middle, said 'I hate this' and walked out together. At that moment, I thought, 'I have my soul mate!' "

Knowing this, you may not be surprised to learn that Gurwitch and Kahn's take on marriage is titled "You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up." It started life as a book of seriocomic essays, then became a play the actor-writers workshopped in big-city venues. It launches its national tour this week in Charlotte's Stage Door Theater.

"We're trying to help people with Post Marital Stress Syndrome," says Kahn. "Everyone has it, but not everyone's willing to admit that. We get people laughing about it. If you bring (issues) out into the open, you don't wallow in your resentment."

Interviewing them, especially on a conference phone line, is like trying to herd escapees from an ant farm. They finish each other's thoughts, riff off each other's gentle digs, and defy you to guess whether they're being serious or hams on wry.

Jeff: "I'm the sentimental one. When I met Annabelle, it was love at first sight."

Annabelle: "I thought I needed to take out a restraining order. I didn't know if Jeff was a stalker or the most romantic man I had ever met. It took five years for us to get it together enough to date."

Jeff: "After we made out, I thought, 'Finally!' Then it's 'We ought to be friends,' and we didn't see each other for a year."

Annabelle: "The night we met, Jeff wrote my number on a napkin -"

Jeff: "No, no, tell it right. It was -"

Annabelle: "OK, I took a napkin and wrote my name and number and said 'Call me.' He kept that napkin for five years. Right before we got married, I went to have it framed and noticed he had another girl's number on the back."

Jeff: "Five years is a long time to carry a cocktail napkin! I didn't sit on my hands: I went on the World Dating Championship Circuit."

One review of their book ends "I felt empathy towards them. Overall, don't think their marriage will last." After 15 years of marriage and 21 years as a couple, they laugh in unison. "We ask every day if marriage is the right thing for us," says Kahn.

"Do opposites attract, or do you have to be like each other?" asks Gurwitch. "It works for Jeff and me that we're very different people. It's in the arguing and challenging that it's fun, as long as you bring the A game to make it interesting."

He grew up in Albany, N.Y., where, he says, "the unexamined life seemed to be the optimum life to lead." She grew up in Mobile, Ala., and Florida, summering at Camp Blue Star in Hendersonville, N.C.

They connected over Bob Dylan, the Tao Te Ching and Isaac Bashevis Singer, then explored their relationship through frank and funny columns in magazines. They've even found painful humor in the saga of Ezra, who was born with VACTERL, a rare combination of birth defects.

Ezra's now 13 and doing well, and he's not in the stage version of "Tomato." But much of their marital agita is.

"In romcoms, marriage is the end of all your problems. For us, it was the beginning," says Gurwitch. "We give people license to (enjoy) schadenfreude: 'Oh my god, their marriage is worse than ours!' The play is couched as comedy, but it's actually therapy."