nytheatre.com review by Emily Otto
September 21, 2007
The tag line for Like Love, a world premiere production at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is "an intimate new musical." While probably intended as a cheeky reference to the subject matter—a guy and a girl deal with the complexities of being sex buddies—it's a completely accurate description, but in ways that have nothing to do with nudity or coitus (neither of which, in case you're wondering, is featured in this show.) One of the most striking aspects of this production is that it deeply explores the vulnerability that lies beneath the attempted nonchalance of contemporary dating.
This three-hander identifies its characters as simply He, She, and Love. He (Jon Patrick Walker) and She (Emily Swallow) have already commenced their entanglement as the play begins. A chance meeting on a train led them to a hotel room tryst. When the fun has ended, the couple's first duet imagines an entire future relationship, which they assume is inevitably doomed, despite their great sex. So they set up rules. No names, no personal details, no commitment, except for a weekly hotel room meeting. Both parties intend to keep their emotions at bay, and inevitably, things get complicated.
Throughout the play, He and She are observed by Love (Danielle Ferland), who plays an invisible commentator on the relationship. Ferland also plays the confidantes of both He and She: the gym buddy who's jealous of He's arrangement and the gal pal who questions She's motives. The friends' exchanges are cleverly structured so that Ferland is often playing both characters at once, offering simultaneous (and sometimes identical) advice to both He and She.
Predictably, the couple's insistence on maintaining anonymity and detachment proves more difficult than they anticipated. She gets sick; he wants to take care of her. Feeling like she can trust him, she asks what he does for a living; he gets nervous and picks a fight. They both vacillate between letting down their guard and inventing barriers. Thankfully, few gender stereotypes are played out: both parties are equally balanced in their struggle to choose between hope and cynicism, and in their terror to allow themselves to be vulnerable.
There is no list of songs in the program, but it ultimately works in favor of the production. Although I can't reference specific titles, I can say with certainty that the Lewis Flinn and Barry Jay Kaplan's score, tinged with smoky jazz, is executed brilliantly by each member of the ensemble, including Brad Simmons, the music director, whose performance on the piano is so striking that it feels like a fourth character. The songs float in and out of the story with little fanfare; subtlety is of the essence here (though it should be mentioned that both Walker and Swallow offer stunning solos in back-to-back 11 o'clock numbers.)
Lisa Rothe's staging is both simple and intelligent. Nothing is overdone, and every song is played in clear relationship, either between the characters or between a character and the audience. This is the sort of musical that thrives in a small venue. It doesn't rely on flashiness or clever turns of phrase, but on highly naturalistic performances that demand both attention and empathy from the audience. The performers work together beautifully: their care for each other and the material is evident, and touches on the fundamental human desire to love and be loved. By the end of the show, I had the sense that the audience around me was rooting for these characters to find a way to be together. The production offers no pat answers to the complications of relationships in a jaded world, but suggests that beyond the pleasure and the pain, love just might be worth the risk.