Men are incapable of fidelity, integrity or profound affection--and they're shallow to boot. Frantic for validation, women backstab each other over worthless guys, dump and are dumped over the slightest cause and would be better off learning to make their careers more important than their relationships. Sound familiar? Romantic love fell under the jaundiced eye of the cynic in the theater some time ago, just as it did in the movies. And the funny thing is, most of this propaganda is coming from male playwrights who seem to be as self-disparaging as women have traditionally been.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's worldly musical Tell Me on a Sunday, at the Avenue Theatre, and Christopher Durang's hilarious Laughing Wild, at the Vogue, provide a couple of cases in point. Both are entertaining, nicely produced and directed, and offer fine performances. Both concern emotional survival in the chaotic search for love. And neither has the slightest clue as to what the nature of love might actually be--even though, oddly enough, both plays are performed by husband-and-wife teams.
The all-music Tell Me on a Sunday is really just the first act of Webber's Song and Dance, which played London and New York in the 1980s. Director Jeremy Cole stirs up all the best in Webber's jazzy score with stimulating staging, while Alex Ryer provides stylish singing and acting and husband/accompanist Jeff Jenkins's talent on the keyboard is in itself reason enough to see the show.
As the story opens, Emma has just arrived in New York from England--another Brit looking for success in the Big Apple. Her American boyfriend sent her the ticket, so she owes him. But the jerk makes it clear that he won't be tied down and doesn't really love her. So she flies from elation (upon her arrival in the city) to depression (on her departure from his apartment) in a breathtakingly short period--a trip she will take in all four of her lovelorn relationships with perfidious men.
Next Emma meets a movie producer and does bimbo duty for a while, shopping her head off and losing her self-respect in Beverly Hills. But once she clues in on his ne'er-do-well priorities (women as possessions), she scurries back to New York to start over, designing hats and looking for love in all the wrong places. Unfortunately, she finds it--along with heartbreak. Then she moves into a dark period of cynical sex with a married guy. When he wants to leave his wife and children for her, she suddenly discovers the joys of independence and throws the bum out.
Emma is growing harsh and beginning to hurt people as she has been hurt. She sings "Take That Look Off Your Face" as she gazes at her own image in a mirror and sees her features harden. The last medley is meant to raise the viewer's spirits--all this "love" has been such a bummer--and to give us confidence that Emma will get more out of life and career than she has so far. But the truth is, Emma is only more experienced, not any wiser. At the bottom of all this storm of emotion, her self-image is still tied absolutely to the men in her life. It's all so retro--and so trite.
"Have you ever wondered why sexual intercourse makes you want to commit suicide?" says the character called Woman in Laughing Wild. And though she's fairly crazy, her hopelessness is familiar enough to make the audience laugh in recognition. Woman is looking for empathy. She even asks the audience if they empathize with her. The poor thing keeps having dreams in which she hits Man over the head in the tuna aisle at the supermarket. She hates Mother Teresa, Dr. Ruth, Sally Jessy Raphael and practically everybody else--especially anyone who has the bad taste to be happy.
As screwy as Durang's Woman is, though, his Man may have it worse. The reason: Man's sexual longing is simply unassuageable--as soon as sex kicks in, he confides to us, the Zen in his nature goes right out the window. Man is made of baser stuff than Woman in Durang's cosmology because, in the playwright's view, sex is not good or beautiful but demeaning and depressing.
Man, too, craves empathy. Insecure, frightened and distressed by the world around him, he is starved for meaning. And so he tries different religions, then returns to his affirmations and the om-ing of mantras. Like Woman, he dreams, and she appears in his dreams as he appears in hers. Yet somehow both manage to discover a little peace as they participate in the Harmonic Convergence. Durang is mocking new-age desperation, but he is also sympathizing with it.
One of the most inventive comic actors in Denver, Kevin Hart as Man conveys Woody Allen's self-absorption with Tom Hanks's innocence. He is so good at communicating astonishment at the vagaries of human experience. Pamela Farone Hart as Woman needs to work on layering her character. She can be funny and surprising from time to time, but the hysterical bit wears thin; we need to be drawn further into the humanity of her character.
While Durang's social reflections are weirdly touching, Webber should find someone to think for him; his music is more impressive than are his ideas about life or Don Black's lame lyrics. In the end, both of these plays are more about isolation and self-gratification than they are about the stuff real relationships are made of. Whatever these guys are babbling about, it isn't love.
Tell Me on A Sunday, in an open-ended run at the Avenue Theatre, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 321-5925.
Laughing Wild, through April 20 at the Vogue Theatre, 1465 South Pearl Street, 765-2771.
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