nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
March 25, 2009
Everything about the pre-show experience for Love suggests sensuality, romance, and amorous comfort. Blue washes and dazzling electric bulbs—meant to evoke candlelight, or perhaps crossed-lovers' stars—give the stage an inviting, libidinous glow. At center, a geometrically defiant platform (suggestively, a bed, designed for the most intimate breed of entanglements) rises from discarded articles of clothing. The room is cool, the invitation hot, and anyone who has ever tumbled into naked limbs amidst clinging sheets would do well to anticipate scenes of passion and allure.
Such is the brilliant bait-and-switch of Patricia Cornelius's Love, enjoying its American premiere by way of The Production Company (Love debuted in Australia in 2004, receiving a slew of awards). Indeed, Love begins hot and heavy, introducing us to a relationship in the very early stages of desire, delirium, and self-deception. By play's end, audiences are treated to something very special: An honest consideration of what it means to love another, love one's self, and wrestle with love for love.
Tanya is a con with a veneer of seemingly impervious snark. Annie is a young and voluptuous prostitute, almost childlike in her need to be loved and cared for. The women form a commercial partnership (Annie does clients; Tanya keeps books) in the hopes of saving enough money to escape their edge-of-the world existence. All seems on track until Tanya gets pinched and Annie starts up with smooth-talking Lorenzo, a heroin junkie with a carnivorous, all-inclusive appetite. When Tanya is released from jail, the three attempt to make a go of it—Jules et Jim by way of Trainspotting—and at that point Love soars from the stratosphere into the cosmos, pursuing intrigues and palpable conclusions all too familiar to anyone who has loved, lost, or lost the will to love.
Cornelius's script is simply brilliant. Dialogue unfurls with the kind of poetic imagery associated with the likes of Shakespeare or Cummings, then pings with blue foulness and obscenity. (Were Annie to step from the stage, she might suggest a drinking game in response to the prolific use of a certain word beginning with "F"; audience members would be left blotto.) There are smatterings of Australian slang and idioms enough to effectively ground the play in regional colors, yet the language on display is boldly transcendent.
Indeed, Love's success is found in its exploration of the themes of attraction, contentment, and the pursuit thereof. Though the play investigates the Australian-set romantic triangulation of a lesbian, a bisexual hooker, and an unrepentant drug addict, their inner worlds are instantly recognizable and universal. From struggles with intimacy to arguments over money to fears of rejection and replacement, Love bristles with the contraction of want from happiness, and—ultimately—the unpalatable contradiction of sacrifice in the name of satisfaction.
Cornelius's script is served by outstanding work from three very strong actors. Their interactions are so rich and investigated that it is hard to believe none of the ensemble stems from the originating Australian cast. To that end, the dialect work is flawless (kudos to vocal coach Kohli Calhoun); a game could be made of attempting to spot the sole cast member speaking with a natural Aussie lilt (Don't bother: You'll fail).
As Lorenzo, Ken Matthews offers an inventive, physical performance. Matthews is sinewy and masculine, and imbues Lorenzo with lithe, primal grace. There is tragic pathos in Lorenzo's inability to love beyond himself, and it is to Matthews's credit that the character—though never wholly likeable—does not tip into caricature or villainy. In his first scene, Lorenzo hits on a grieving stranger by way of fondling her nipples; in his final moments, he reveals jaw-dropping reserves of callousness and self-interest, yet Matthews's charm and vulnerability allow the character to remain astonishingly empathetic.
Erin Maya Darke's Annie is delicate and endearing, her "beautiful and small" frame housing a wounded and potentially dangerous woman. So much more than a hooker with a heart of gold or the damaged child of a too-early sexual awakening, Annie is tragically in search of love for love's sake; when the character dreams of being alone, it is heart-wrenching to realize she truly yearns for comfort with (and acceptance of) self. Darke spends much of the evening in barely-concealing costumes, and it is to Darke's credit that we never see an actress aware of her virtual undress, but rather Annie's consciousness of her body's effect, if not her worth.
But it is Bronwen Coleman who nearly walks away with the show. Described as "a lovely kind of handsome," Coleman's Tanya is attractive and fascinating; she is relentless in her determination to validate her love, and in so doing maintain distance from vibrant pain and disappointment. Coleman has a pragmatic drawl that occasionally zips with blasé insinuation, serving a superbly crafted intellectual façade. When that façade cracks, Coleman finds the kind of moment actresses spend careers in pursuit of; her back to another character—her voice unwavering, her body calm—Tanya's cheeks stream with tears of unrestrained anguish. The moment is astonishing, and capstones an already flawless performance.
Mark Armstrong's direction is sure and crisp. Often the actors challenge one another in pace and tempo, their lines falling with a natural expediency unfortunately absent from many "realistic" plays. Other scenes play out in a stillness that cultivates dread or anticipation. The staging is visceral and occasionally violent, flashing with (quite literal) animalistic inevitability; Noah Starr's fight choreography is outstanding, serving as honest communication when language briefly breaks down. Sara Bader's sound design seems almost a fourth character, with ambient noise and snippets of music grounding scenes and aiding transitions. Dan Henry's lighting, so delicious and warm at the top of the show, runs the emotional and topographical gamut; occasionally, Henry makes efficient use of a single instrument, bathing the stage with an unsettling, washed-out glare. And April Bartlett's spare and evocative stage design reveals the platform at its center to be more of a sacrificial dais than a bed.
Love runs a brisk 90 minutes, sans-intermission. The Production Company deserves reward by way of full houses and enthusiastic applause. See this show.