Audiences at Hartford’s Theaterworks are returning this month to a land that exists slightly out of space and out of time, a quirky little world, resembling our own, but where laws of logic are slightly skewed, psychological conditions manifest themselves in unusual ways and where the course of true love is even more unpredictable. Welcome back to a place I like to call Cariani-land, where playwright/actor John Cariani first took us in “Almost, Maine,” that played at the downtown theater two years ago and where we find ourselves in his new work, “Love/Sick” now through June 22.
This time, however, Cariani’s alternative reality has a slightly hipper, more urban feel than the sweetly innocent, more charming universe he depicted in “Almost, Maine.” The new show enjoys a format similar to that of the earlier work, a set of short scenes averaging ten minutes in length, each introducing us to a new set of characters. Where “Almost, Maine,” was set at the same time on a specific night, “Love/Sick” also occurs at a specific hour, but on different Friday evenings, ranging from Spring to Winter. The sole connection appears to be the local SuperCenter big box store, which is referenced in nearly every vignette.
While both shows deal with the vagaries of love, “Love/Sick,” as its title implies, takes a slightly harsher look at romance, not necessarily guaranteeing a happy ending at the end of each little scene. As the evening progresses, however, the stories subtly become more realistic and thus the stakes seem somewhat higher. That’s not to say that “Love/Sick” is not as funny or enjoyable as “Almost, Maine.” Far from it. The Theaterworks audience, perhaps because of their familiarity with the previous play, jumps ecstatically into Cariani’s first scene, gleefully accepting the frantic, overlapping, identical dialogue of two individuals with “obsessive impulsive disorder” which eliminates any type of caution or self-censorship. They meet in the aisles of the super center and, upon recognizing each other as fellow travelers, fall madly into over-eager, head-spinning love, while trying to remember the tools and behaviors recommended by their respective therapists.
As she did with “Almost, Maine,” director Amy Saltz demonstrates that she knows how to manage a Cariani scene, allowing each one to unfold gracefully, at a pace appropriate to the content, with the merest hint of a poignant hesitation as each scene draws to a comic, ironic or thoughtful close. Although lovesickness may imply languishing or standing in place, Saltz assures that the evening keeps moving, even when some of the scenes represent a change in tone. She has gotten her cast of four—Pascale Armand, Bruch Reed, Chris Thorn and Laura Woodward—to deliver solid performances through five distinctive roles each, with Ms. Armand being a particular standout.
Woodward, a veteran of Theaterworks’ “Almost, Maine” production, and Reed get things off to a memorable start with their suitably antic portrayal of uninhibited couple, while Thorn and Armand score with their first appearances, as respectively a Singing Telegram Man on his first day on the job and the intended recipient of a client’s musical communication. As many jokes about singing telegrams have taught us over the years, this one will also not proceed quite as expected, especially when love and expectations are involved.
Cariani also makes sure that same sex relationships get their due in his play, first with a story about a gay man so reluctant and tentative in a fairly new relationship that his ears block out the most intimate and heartfelt of declarations. Later we meet a lesbian couple, one of whom goes searching through long-forgotten storage boxes for her missing sense of self, as both deal with their respective roles as stay-at-home mother and family breadwinner. All four actors are quite believable in these parts, with Woodward especially effective as the angry, exasperated mom.
While the play remains a laugh-out-loud comedy, the subjects of the sketches begin to cover some more serious topics, particularly as the play moves toward the end of the first act. A husband rather suddenly and unexpectedly tells his wife that the thing he wants most in the world is a divorce, for quite surprising reasons. And just before intermission, an amusing, playful exchange between a married couple about how much one is willing to sacrifice in a relationship turns portentously ominous. Armand is both satisfyingly hilarious as well as uncomfortably dangerous as a wife seemingly all too willing to push the envelope a little too far.
At the top of the second act, a technologically distracted couple face a crisis when the wife, in a splendid turn by Woodward, absent-mindedly blurts out that she had sex for lunch. This leads to a cunning study on timing and communication in relationships, along with the need for self-awareness and an ability to revise a menu on the spot. Cariani also introduces us to a couple on their wedding day, with the bride experiencing cold feet while locked away in the bathroom reacting to the perfunctory manner that brought her to this place. And later we'll meet a busy couple with active lives and careers, in which the wife one day wakes up and checks her calendar and realizes that she has forgotten to have a baby.
Later, at the end of the act, the play returns to the aisles of the SuperCenter where a two shoppers, who were once married and divorced long ago, discover that each have become recently free from their subsequent relationships and muse upon whether or not their official destiny includes being together or perhaps more satisfyingly apart.
What also makes Cariani-land so attractive is that you really can’t figure out how each scene is going to progress. The playwright is always surprising you, which allows an audience to experience the thrill of discovery or recognition multiple times during a single evening.
Michael Schweikardt has cleverly designed a set that can quickly accommodate various changes of venue. A projected backdrop of the tall shelves of the SuperCenter is replaced by a floor-to-ceiling collage of bright red roses, as a single door swivels and moves around the stage to represent a change in scene, with just a few key pieces of furniture rolled off and on to create the necessary atmosphere. Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting assists with the quick scene changes, occasionally outlining a solitary character left alone on the stage, while Harry Nadal’s costume designs are appropriately contemporary suburban with bursts of creativity for the barefoot bridal gown or the Singing Telegram singer’s uniform.
Cariani’s “Almost, Maine,” after a unremarkable opening in New York in the last decade has gone on to become a staple in regional and community theaters across the country, evidencing its appeal as a crowd-pleasing comedy with some wistful commentary on its mind. Cariani himself appeared as one of the four actors in a recent New York City revival that earned the play the reviews it missed out on the first time around. I imagine that “Love/Sick,” as a comedy willing to take a more serious look at the complex, potentially divisive issues surrounding any romantic relationship, will enjoy an equally prolific life in the future.
For information and tickets, contact the Theaterworks box office at 860.527.7838 or visit their website at www.theaterworkshartford.org.
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