No romantic leading character, short of
Cinderella, has ever made such a deflating entrance as the one found in
John Kolvenbach’s Lovesong. A disheveled, possibly
autistic young man named Beane (Zach Chase) comes to the upscale
apartment of his hyper-caffeinated sister Joan (Laura Austin). She is
explaining to her bemused husband Harry (Joseph Whelan) why her day was
ruined when she had to fire an intern who burst into tears. He asks,
eyes widening, “You fired her because she was crying?” “It was noon,”
she responds. And in her defense, “I am often fair.” Joan and Harry’s
verbal Punch-and-Judy show is so absorbing that they, and we, barely
remember that Beane is there. And this is what we need to know.
For this current production at the
Redhouse, 201 S. West St., we first see Beane delivering a wordless
prologue downstage. Alone in his shabby room, Beane is tormented by
discordant music and feels that the ceiling might be falling in on him.
(In fact, John Czajkowski’s set is rigged to let us see the ceiling
coming down on Beane.) Yet it’s not something he can tell us or Joan
about. She’s not listening, anyway; she just wants Beane to get on with
Back in his apartment, Beane encounters
Kolvenbach’s most original creation, an unapologetic but engaging house
thief named Molly (Amy Newhall). Red-haired and assertive, Molly begins
by cursing minimalism. She also allows that people are usually afraid
of her; they buy guard dogs or move to the suburbs. Never smarmy or
ingratiating, she tells him harsh truths straight out. She has stolen
Beane’s property and fenced it all for only $6, which allowed her to
buy a cheeseburger. “I ate it standing up.”
By this time the audience will understand that Lovesong,
despite the title, is anything but a conventional romantic comedy.
Indeed, it makes hash of the conventions of the form so that musical
interludes between the 11 blackout scenes trigger the wrong emotion,
like having Louis Armstrong croon “The Very Thought of You” after
Molly’s admission. The very unpredictability of Lovesong is its
first appeal. The obsessive Joan, who takes four-minute lunch breaks,
is not the monster we initially perceive, and, as implied earlier, it
takes a while to realize we are being asked to pin our emotions on the
spacey and unresolved Beane.
The Redhouse is billing this production as an “East Coast premiere.” Lovesong
opened in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in early 2006 and it went later
that year to London’s West End. Artistic director Laura Austin saw it
there and decided to bring it here, before it had a chance to appear in
New York City. That’s a key to the unusual feelings Lovesong engenders,
a blend of middle American angst and European wariness. Put another
way, the play feels like a collaboration between Mary Chase, author of Harvey, and master absurdist Eugene Ionesco, creator of The Bald Soprano.
Chase and Ionesco, like many of their contemporaries, are critics of
bourgeois aggression and self-importance. Both find humor without
writing what you would call gags. Both expose the absurdity we live in,
Chase more gently and Ionesco with bite. Kolvenbach swings between the
two of them.
Lovesong offers a humor that not
only cannot be explained, it can barely be repeated. Take away the
delivery, excellently staged by director Peter Moller, and there’s
hardly anything left on the page, such as Beane’s inability to take a
simple multiple choice exam. When asked to compare his wife to a fruit,
Harry responds that she has the fragrance of a cantaloupe, and that
just passing a fruit stand with a cantaloupe displayed can give him a
“little situation in my pants.” Beane’s renewed zest for life, once
Molly gets a hold of him, causes a passion for turkey sandwiches, which
he thrusts into the face of a hapless waiter (Phil Brady). And Molly’s
declarations of love take on bizarre figures of speech: “I’ll live
among your teeth. I’ll build a house on your molars.” The packed house
on opening night greeted these sallies with laughter usually reserved
for Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward.
The larger questions in Lovesong
are the usual ones accompanying any theater of the absurd, whether
whimsical or weighty. Is madness or even feigned madness a defense?
Playwright Kolvenbach wants more than anything to entertain us, but
he’s treading in the direction of R.D. Laing and our own Thomas Szasz;
to wit, just who is the crazy one here? Continually throughout the
play, Kolvenbach asks us if we can see where to find the truth. Can it
be that Beane is only hallucinating? Does the driven sister Joan have a
better grip on reality? When Harry and Joan decide to play hooky from
responsibility so that they can enjoy a sexual interlude, Joan protests
that she can’t call in sick because she’s a terrible liar. “What do you
mean?” roars Harry. “You’re a magnificent liar.”
Burglar Molly, in contrast, deals in
liberating truths. Beane thanks her by saying, “I’ve always known that
life was meant for other people. Now I’m alive: I have the courage to
want.” At her exit Molly calls for Beane to join her in a toast, “Death
The cast boasts two Equity players and two top drama students. Zach Chase took leading roles in Le Moyne College’s Translations last October and An Evening of Ives in
April. As called for here, his Beane can disappear in one scene and
dominate the next. Amy Newhall, a recent graduate of the Syracuse
University Drama Department, recently appeared in the production of Embedded at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As Molly, her confrontationalism here sparks frisson.
Joseph Whelan, virtually a company
regular, finally gets a chance to play a more likable character, this
time the witty and subversive Harry. And Austin, rare among company
honchos, finds herself again cast as a disagreeable character, but her
Joan boasts a rasping comic edge.
Lovesong marks a rebirth of live
drama at the Redhouse, which has suffered some hard times in the last
year and a half since Bryony Lavery’s Frozen. Simultaneously,
the production renews links to Redhouse’s beloved ancestor,
Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse, where director Peter Moller had been
a regular. For its first three years the Redhouse produced professional
theater, and Frozen beat out Syracuse Stage offerings to win this year’s Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award for Best Professional Drama.
Lovesong, while polished and
proficient on the same stage, is also more modest. But the last few
years have shown us there is market for fresh, edgy dramas that take
chances as they delight. This one completes a circuit: Chicago, London,
Syracuse—but not Manhattan.
This production runs through May 18. See Times Table for information.