If Love Were All

The oldest subject in the world demands a fresh perspective.

If you plan to live on this orb, you'd better like love stories.

Love rules the arts. It's been a staple of Western literature for at least the last 3,000 years (the "Song of Songs" in the Bible is about that old). In the theater, love has taken every guise, from the most romantic (Romeo and Juliet) to the most troubled (Marie and Bruce), from incestuous (Oedipus Rex) to incompatible (Hedda Gabler), from short-attention-spanned (Don Juan) to the literally bestial (The Goat).

Straight love and gay love, married love and adultery, childlike devotion and sophisticated ambivalence - we've seen them all in the theater, brought to us by every important playwright from Sophocles to Tony Kushner, and we can expect more tomorrow. Our appetite for love stories is endless, and our writers seem willing to meet demand with supply.

But there is one drawback to this surfeit of love-art, and that's our inevitable feeling that it's all been said and done. After Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Othello and Desdemona, George and Martha, what can a contemporary playwright offer? We may not ask writers to totally revolutionize the subject (though some, like Albee in Virginia Woolf, nearly do), but we do require that they make enough of a departure to convince us that we're not essentially watching reruns.

And some current playwrights make it happen: Neil LaBute gives us love as a cynical college project, Patrick Marber brings us lovers who speak sex with unusual candor, Richard Greenberg provides us love in a new venue: an all-male sports team. Each innovation makes the subject feel brand new, and worth our time. It seems there's even an avant-garde of love stories; and if our writers aren't part of it, they don't win our full respect.

Which brings me to David Parr, author of Eleanor Rigby is Waiting. Parr grabbed our attention a year ago in Slap & Tickle, a stunning analysis of gay sex that was also Gypsy Productions' first offering at the Suncoast Resort. Now Gypsy is bringing us another play by Parr; but this one is far, much too far, from the cutting edge. Eleanor Rigby is about people reaching out to one another, about the difficulties of making contact and the rewards for successfully doing so. But Parr has just about nothing to say on the subject that we haven't already heard a thousand times on stage, screen and video, so while we're charmed by his gentle humor, we're also conscious, virtually from the first moment, of artistic déjà vu.

The fugue-like structure of the play is its greatest strength. We're given 36 characters (played by three male and three female actors) in 30 scenes, some of which are only a few seconds in length. What's so pleasing about these vignettes is how they refer to each other: If a character in one scene says her cat jumped out a window, another character several scenes later may confide that she saw the leap.

A rose keeps reappearing unpredictably, held by different characters; and in what might be an epigraph to the entire play, a cabdriver on the make says "You can complain because the roses got thorns or you can rejoice 'cause the thorns got roses."

Characters appear and reappear: a blind woman, a pregnant woman, an unfaithful husband, a panhandler. A man standing near a pay phone receives repeated unwanted calls, and a shy widower tries bravely to pick up a woman who knows no English. All of these characters are trying to escape loneliness - the Eleanor Rigby of the title - and all are somewhere in a cycle of solitude, seduction, togetherness, consciousness of incompatibility, severance and solitude.

Only one of the scenes illustrates a truly complicated emotion: In it, a man tells his lover that the pain of her departures is so great that he can no longer bear her arrivals. And only one other struck me as truly poignant: A self-deprecating suitor reads a love note to a drag queen because he's too embarrassed to speak freely. But two scenes out of 30 isn't nearly enough. Most of Eleanor Rigby, earnest and charming as it is, remains uninspired.

Fortunately, the Gypsy's staging is well-acted and designed - this theater's productions just keep getting better. Playing six roles apiece are Joleen Wilkinson, Larry Buzzeo, Andrea Biggs, Daniel Harris, Alisha Campton and Tim Kowalewski.

Trevor Keller's direction emphasizes the humanity of all these searchers after love, and Keller and Tony Buglio's set of an urban cityscape is nicely attractive. One of the strongest points is Michael Creason's sound design: From a dozen "Eleanor Rigby" interpretations before the curtain comes up, to the white noise of a health club, a bus stop and a dance club, this is sound as professional as you'll find in any theater.

But even excellent design can't distract us from the notion that Eleanor Rigby is, if not hackneyed, at least overly familiar. After three millennia of drama on the subject, it's hard to write a love-play that doesn't instantly seem redundant. Anyway, that line about roses and thorns is so good, it makes most of what follows unnecessary. These roses have thorns; these thorns have roses. Hell is other people; so is heaven. That's the beauty and the tragedy of love.

Only 4 billion plays have been written around this conundrum.

David Parr's hardly to be blamed, then, if his tender, typical comedy gets lost in the crowd.

A Natural Woman. The singing is lovely, if not terribly insightful, the singers are personable, and the songs include your favorites, from "Up On The Roof" to "You've Got a Friend." But Tapestry: The Music of Carole King takes place on a bare stage and looks more like a rehearsal than a finished production. Still, one has to admire Julie Rowe, Kristin Huffman, Sharon Scott, Angela Bond and Gayle King: they have few props besides their voices (and smiles) to keep us attentive, and they mostly succeed. What could they do with a real band behind them (and not just Gayle King at the piano or Rowe on guitar)? What could they do with a genuine set? And when does "low-budget" detract not only from the players' possibilities but from the audience's experience?We all deserve better. On both sides of the footlights.

Caveat emptor.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected].

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