Lives of Not-So-Quiet Desperation
Two shows currently playing in Hartford (both through June 22) detail the vicissitudes of love and, even though there’s hardly a moment in either play when anyone is onstage alone, of loneliness. One is an often bittersweet kaleidoscope of 21st-century relationships, most of them in some way provisional, the other a screwball farce of literary provenance and lunatic proportions.
Love/Sick, now at TheaterWorks, is the follow-up, a companion piece, really, to John Cariani’s widely produced Almost, Maine. Like its predecessor, this one is a series of short scenes tied with a common thread—in this case, suburban vignettes all taking place at 7:30 on a Friday evening. The ten sketches eavesdrop on domestic crises, bookended by comical encounters in a WalMart-type superstore. The evening begins and ends with passionate kisses; in between, couples discover fissures in their relationships and patch them up, or don’t.
Alternately comic and poignant—usually within the same scene—the duets include a would-be bride jilted via a singing telegram, and a nervous bride having second and third thoughts on the wedding morning; a comfortable marriage upended by a Freudian slip of the tongue, and one that a husband decides to leave because it’s “simpler to be lonely” than married; a pair of gay men negotiating the “L”-word, and a lesbian couple negotiating kids and career.
The scenes, deftly staged by Amy Saltz, are performed by four actors in various couplings, all of them displaying great versatility and comic energy. I particularly enjoyed Laura Woodward as the lesbian wife impatiently searching for a child’s toy and her own sense of self in her domestic existence; Bruch Reed as the gay man who literally can’t hear the words “I love you” and then literally can’t pronounce them; Chris Thorne as the singing-telegram man reluctant to warble the bad news; and Pascale Armand as the wife who spices up her “languishing” marriage with thoughts of murder.
The Love/Sick title is instructive, as part of the playwright’s point seems to be that love, as Shakespeare told us, is a kind of disease—a madness, but “a lunacy so ordinary” that everyone is infected. The episodic play has had several regional productions since its premiere last year, but the script still feels not quite done, in need of one final tightening-up where scenes meander after making their point and before getting to the payoff.
VANYA & CO.
If you know why the aging actress reacts so violently when she learns the young aspiring actress is named Nina, you’ll get most of the gags in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. And if you think it’s funny, you’ll enjoy most of Christopher Durang’s play, now at Hartford Stage. Of course, if you’ve caught the joke in the title you’ll know it’s a sendup of everything Chekhov—drawing mostly on Uncle Vanya and The Seagull but with sideswipes at The Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters.
The play, set not in provincial czarist Russia but in Bucks County, Pa., finds a present-day Vanya and Sonia—middle-aged and morose, fitful and frustrated, leading lives of not-so-quiet desperation in the family’s vacation farmhouse—except here he’s gay and she’s his adopted sister who’s got the hots for him. When their sister, Masha, arrives for a visit with her latest boyfriend in tow, the Chekhov parallel becomes a mashup: Uncle Vanya’s haughty professor and his beautiful young bride crossed with The Seagull’s Irina, a theatrical luminary whose star is fading and who feels threatened by a vibrant newcomer—that’s right, Nina. Here, named after one of The Three Sisters, she’s a movie star who made her fame, and the money that pays her siblings’ bills, in sexploitation flics, but who fancies she could have trod the boards in Greek tragedy.
Speaking of which, there’s a sixth character in the house—not a Chekhovian figure at all, but Cassandra, the West Indian housekeeper, who mingles Homeric prophecy with voodoo spells
V&S&M&S is reportedly the most-performed play in the country right now—which sounds right, as it’s also showing up at Shakespeare & Company later this summer. And no wonder. The Chekhovian parody appeals to the savvy theatergoer, but it’s no heady in-joke. Or rather, it’s a frothy, raucous, sexy farce wrapped around a heady in-joke.
I missed the play’s New York debut, so the Hartford production was my introduction to the Tony-winning script. I did get the Nina gag and most of the other Chekhov allusions, and laughed aloud at some of the knowing jibes and the farcical shenanigans. But I wasn’t exactly swept along on the waves of laughter my opening-night neighbors were enjoying. Durang’s specialty is theatrical parody, and this one has the same mix of homage and lampoon as his one-act satires of Williams, Mamet and the like, only longer. Too long, in fact. At nearly three hours from curtain-up to curtain call, the piece, like Love/Sick, cries out for a final cut. The material is too thin and the plotline (including a clumsy obligatory happy ending) too predictable to support its weight.
That said, director Maxwell Williams moves things along briskly and often hilariously, abetted by a perfectly cast ensemble. Mark Nelson is an amusingly ironic Vanya until he explodes in a tantrum of exasperated nostalgia for the good old pre-cybernetic days. Caryn West is a fidgety and frustrated Sonia until she unleashes a dead-on impersonation of Maggie Smith at her most imperious.
Leslie Hendrix, in a turnabout from her multi-season roles on Law and Order and All My Children, does an unapologetically over-the-top rendition of flamboyant, narcissistic Masha, opposite another TV refugee, David Gregory, deliciously airheaded as Masha’s boy-toy, the deeply talentless but supremely self-regarding (and impeccably buff) Spike. Andrea Lynn Green makes an attractively naïve and star-struck Nina, and Stacy Sergeant pulls off the anti-Chekovian Cassandra with as much wackiness as the role requires and more dignity than it deserves.
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