nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
April 1, 2009
Watching Love Drunk, Romulus Linney's new play staged by the Abingdon Theatre Company, is a bit like watching a foreign film with no subtitles: you don't know what's going on or who anyone is, and there are flashes enough of arresting imagery and emotional engagement to make the experience doubly frustrating.
There's no pleasure to be had in reporting that Love Drunk is a dud. Romulus Linney is a prolific and brilliant playwright, and the Abingdon consistently produces thought-provoking, emotionally potent work. As well, Love Drunk features a top-notch cast: Austin Pendleton is a deservedly revered virtual theatre institution, and relative newcomer Kristina Valada-Viars shows all the promise of a long, diverse career. The promise of Kelly Morgan——whose credits span from Steppenwolf to Edinburgh to the Kennedy Center—as director also elevates the expectations placed on Love Drunk. And yet: So much talent, so little product worth pitching.
From the press release: "Love Drunk is the story of an older man who picks up a much younger woman in a bar and brings her to his retreat, an Appalachian palace. Her littered past collides with his desire and what follows is an inspired dance of sexual tension." The first part of this description is fitting, while the latter only applies if by "sexual tension" the producers mean a barely coherent dueling rant betwixt a mentally unbalanced woman and the lascivious man to whom she appears not the least bit physically attracted.
Love Drunk is 90 minutes of false starts and misdirection. Wilbur Johnson and Karen Bannerman are two strangers with little in common, save that they both choose to spend an inordinate amount of time in a (metaphor-laden) tower atop Wilbur's reclusive cabin. They trade back stories and occasionally flirt at flirtation, but it is never clear what Karen wants from Wilbur, or why either character even tolerates the other; within 15 minutes they are shouting at one another, and wondering aloud why they stay. The play completely collapses in on itself when it is revealed that both characters are convivial liars, continually reinventing their pasts and spinning newer and more fantastical webs of bathos and Grand Guignol to etch in their respective biographies. Unfortunately, once the audience learns they cannot invest in anything Karen or Wilbur say—and after every anecdote clocks escalating uncomfortable narrative mileage from molestation, infidelity, disease, bestiality, and murder—there seems little point to the endless game of fictionship. Linney's play calls for a plethora of stage and hand props (including—though far from limited to—a turntable, architectural models, books, photographs, letters, checks, poems, a stoker, coffee, booze, and a sinister knife all but screaming "Chekhovian gun") and after a time, an unfortunate pattern begins to appear; Karen and Wilbur seem willing to talk about everything around them but nothing between them.
Pendleton and Valada-Viars are both engaging stage presences, and it is hard to deny that, at times, their physical interactions—a caress here, a flash of steel there—are intriguing; they are talented performers, deserving of a different script. Morgan creates dynamic stage pictures, using mirrored images and sharp lines to craft a palette of restless motion, but once the flash has worn away (and it does so early), there remains little to support Linney's sexagenarian fantasy piece. Jeff Pager's set is gorgeous and detailed, if somewhat overstuffed; a massive, largely unused chair stage right sits within elbow's-length of the audience, forcing Pendleton and Valada-Viars to shimmy by as though leaving airline seats en route for the loo.
Much like his characters, Linney's script is knowingly literate, tossing out references from Shakespeare to Cole Porter, from Origin of Species to Bait & Tackle (the play itself takes inspiration from Ibsen's The Master Builder), and yet there seems little investment to tie together the threads of studied quotes and allusions. Despite the oft lovely prose, images, and ideas, I don't know what Linney wants to say with Love Drunk, save that old men lust for skinny girls in tight t-shirts, eagerly awaiting moments of dubious theatrical logic that merit the tearing of bras and the gnashing of flesh.