theater (reviews)

review: love song

Love Song

By John Kolvenbach
Directed by John Kolvenbach
Featuring Ian Barford, Laura Latreille, Andrew Pastides, Zoe Winters

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
production web site:  http://www.59e59.org/shows/LoveSong.html

April 13, 2011 (press opening) — May 8, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 10, 2011

  • “You oppose me for fun.” (Joan to Harry).  “That’s called talking.” (Harry in response)
  • “I think a person can have you at gunpoint whether they have one or not.” (Beane to Molly)
  • “Every time I blink I mourn the quarter second I don’t look into your eyes.” (Beane to Molly)
  • “All of a sudden, the love songs make sense.” (Beane)

House music careens from less familiar contemporary yearning emo tune smiths to Ella Fitzgerald to Elvis Presley to original composition solo mournfully jazzy piano.  We are asked to take our love songs seriously to start, and in the closing moments of this 90-minute wild ride through a dense literal marriage relationship and a poetic magic imaginary friendship we are asked to leave the literal behind.  Explicitly and by the least interesting (and most imaginary) character.  The script can feel that uneven in Love Song, though there are many moments of delight.  Some of those moments of lightness come from extended sequences of physical mimed sequences in silence, directed by playwright Kolvenbach with a clown’s touch.

Love Song, currently running as part of the Americas Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters, tells parallel stories of adult siblings Beane (Andrew Pastides) and Joan (Laura Latreille) who have made their ways differently through life.  Joan is married to Harry (Ian Barford), both employed at office jobs, middle-aged and childless, both of whom attempt to draw out awkward Beane. Big sister has always cared for Beane this way, we learn.  Joan and Harry entertain the silent Beane, take him to meals, care for him.  Does he work?  Has he been institutionalized?  We don’t know.  These initial scenes of adult familiars attempting to cajole a depressed recluse among them will feel familiar and funny and are quite successful in the hands of these talented actors.  Barford in particular is a master of crafting a universe out of details, eking momentous meaning out of small moments in a life.  Sister Joan, just a few years older the Beane, speaks at times with entertainingly laughable old-fashioned vocabulary — “rascal” and “scallywag” and “shenanigans” and “malarkey” pepper her speech.

While we hear nothing of parents among these adults, we do hear Joan’s version of Beane being pestered (but hardly bullied) by a classmate on the school bus when he was young. This detail is meant to suggest that Beane has long been a silent sufferer, oddly interacting with the world around him.  This is among only a few details offered of past life events that do not add up to explanations for current life realities.  Beane returns from one outing with his sister to his bare apartment and to the after-effects, we are made to believe, of a robbery. Belligerent robber Molly (Zoe Winters) is lurking in the shadows, and a relationship ensues.  What could read as situation comedy sketches are deftly acted here, and sandwiched between scenes (sometimes painfully long scenes) of imagined interactions between Beane and feisty Molly.  Molly badgers Beane and he falls for her and begins what might be a manic cycle or might be love.  Who is to know?  What is real?  If there are real effects created (in this case, Beane comes out of his emotional shell and Joan is inspired by Beane’s new energy to look at her own husband with new appreciation) who are we to question how that has occurred?

A spare set (designed by Ji-Youn Chang) creatively combines two sets — one rolled out from behind a shoji screen and another impossibly sparely finished, with pieces that move in and out with Beane’s solitary psychotic episodes.

Chicago’s Route 66 Theatre Company presented another Kovenbach play, On An Average Day, in the fall of 2008 that also features intense sibling interactions (invokingTrue West‘s fraternal fisticuffs).  This production generated local press that included qualified commentary about the writing and soaring praise for the acting. I shared these responses to that production during my recent era as a Chicago resident, critic, dramaturg, theatre-lover.  In this production, I find I have the same combination of reactions: expert acting and a script with soaring moments and qualifying weaknesses.  There are extended passages of quotable and moving dialogue in Love Song, and there are also a few extended sequences that feel expendable, especially the latter scenes between Beane and his usefully imaginary Molly — after we all know, and we all know that Beane knows that she is imaginary.  Her dramatic purpose has been served, and yet one of the longest passages of dialogue (the two characters sharing a dreamed up swimming-in-the-reservoir story) is saved for the final 20 minutes of the play, drawing a lot of power and air from this gently floating and often delightful imaginary world.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 13, 2011)

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