Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gabriel Kuttner, Liz Hayes, and Daniel Berger-Jones get romantic in Love Song.
I admit that up until recently I kind of hated playwright John Kolvenbach.  I detested his Fabuloso, and felt that his On An Average Day should really have been credited to "Harold Pinter, David Mamet, and Sam Shepard, as told to John Kolvenbach."

So I dragged myself to Orfeo Group's current production of his latest, Love Song (at the Charlestown Working Theatre through this Saturday) with a heavy heart.  And determined to jump ship at intermission (as is my current habit!) if things headed south.

Well, there was no intermission.  (Ha!  Fooled again by that old A.R.T. trick!!!) So I had to stay till the end.

But I was glad I did, and I also admit that the production made me change my mind about John Kolvenbach.

A little bit.

For believe it or not, there's at least one really good idea - and maybe two - banging around inside Love Song.  The trouble is, John Kolvenbach himself doesn't quite realize how good these ideas are!  So inevitably, after initially striking out into truly original territory, the playwright slowly returns to the familiar "whimsical" tropes of (wait for it) . . . . Fabuloso.  Before our eyes, he turns back into . . . John Kolvenbach.

Aargh.   It's really too bad there's no intermission!  Still, there is that first half .  . . which convinced me that Kolvenbach has a spark of actual talent - as opposed to mere facility.  But thinking back, even in the sitcommy Fabuloso, there were cold glints here and there that hinted at the playwright's weird sense of emotional isolation - and he pushes that angle to amusing new heights in Love Song, which centers on a kind of metaphysically-autistic hero, "Beane" (Gabriel Kuttner) who is so relentlessly reductive he can't see the point of raincoats (since your skin is waterproof already!) and rants at the redundancy of owning a fork when you've already got a spoon.

Needless to say, "love" has no place in Beane's worldview - although "fear" certainly does; he has begun to imagine the walls (or in designer Cristina Todesco's brilliant re-working of the CWT space, the ceiling) have begun to close in on him.  His Nazi-yuppie sister (Liz Hayes) and her whipped, but wise-cracking, husband (Daniel Berger-Jones) aren't much help when it comes to human connection, either; it takes them several minutes to even notice Beane when he arrives in their white-on-white apartment, and their idea of "relating" to him is to give him a personality test (which he fails hilariously, in the play's funniest set-piece).

So far, so good; but Kolvenbach has an even better gambit up his sleeve - he pushes his lead character all the way through the emotional keyhole, as it were, when a female thief, "Molly" (Georgia Lyman) invades his apartment and subjects him to her own interrogation.  Molly is a funny kind of burglar, though: she specializes in stripping from apartments that special vase or painting people have carefully chosen as a personal statement; she's a kind of personality thief - the reductionist turned inward.  And as Beane has nothing to steal in his apartment, in a way she's forced to take him instead.

The resulting "romance" at first feels just as freshly astringent as what has come before - even though it's rather obvious (particularly to those who remember that high-school chestnut Harvey) what big "twist" Kolvenbach has rolled up his sleeve.  Still, the playwright keeps up an admirably conflicted tone as Beane at first rejuvenates his own life, and then his sister's, with what amounts to joyful self-delusion.  The trouble is, the script steadily grows more sappy, in the manner of King of Hearts and Harold and Maude, and Kolvenbach again doesn't seem to appreciate the quirky originality of his own second theme - that the blossoming of Beane's sister "Joan" is a troubling kind of emotional vampirism.  By the time the curtain is rung down (at ninety minutes, roughly the limit of the millennial attention span), there has been some chatter about light and dark, and a few perorations about bodily fluids and other gross stuff, and we have been regaled that "all you need is love" - and the clever, cold quirk of the piece's opening scenes has all but been forgotten.

Oh, well!  From the response of the audience, it was obvious that the hipsters of today, beneath their jaundiced 'attitudes,' are just as sentimental as the hipsters of yesteryear, and it's certainly hard to fault Orfeo's slickly enjoyable production.  As noted, Cristina Todesco's set is a stroke of genius, and Katherine O'Neill's costumes were nearly as good; meanwhile Peter Bayne's music and sound design, though over-amplified, seemed to hit all the right notes.  Director Risher Reddick kept his foot firmly on the gas, and directed with a tight technical flourish - which, frankly, the Orfeans seem to like; only Kuttner came through with a fully interior performance, it seemed to me (but then a "lack" of visible technique has long been his specialty).  Indeed, for a while the contrast between Beane and the other characters was all the more resonant because the respective actors' performance styles were so different.

This worked less well, however, as the show progressed, but the high finish always kept the show moving, and light on its feet.  Still, I wished the confident Georgia Lyman could have been a little spookier as Molly.  And surely there are more dimensions to the horrifying Joan than the talented Liz Hayes limns here (funny as she is); likewise, the perennially clever Daniel Berger-Jones found a zillion ways to launch her husband's zingers, but never really drew out into genuine (if covert) drama his horrified hostility toward his driven wife.  And just beneath the surface, isn't Joan just as lonely and reductive as her brother?  I think that's the idea - but you would have been hard-pressed to pick that up from these performances (the set designer got it, but the actors didn't).

Still, it was apparent from the response in the house that Orfeo has a hit on its hands, and they're certainly talented and hard-working enough to deserve one.  And I'll admit that Kolvenbach half-deserves the accolades he has received for Love Song.  The question now is - can he go the distance through an entire play? Only time will tell.

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