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06.24.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Dana Grover
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE: Susannah Greenwood is the apex of a romantic triangle with Travis Leland and Brent Beebe in 'Luv.'

A Many Splintered Thing

Northside Theatre Company's 'Luv' is a cage match pitching male sentimentality against female pragmatism

By Ben Marks


THERE IS a line late in the second act of Murray Schisgal's Luv, now being presented by Northside Theatre Company in San Jose, that is apparently important enough to the playwright that he has put the words into his characters' mouths no fewer than five times in the span of about a minute. "Love," begins Ellen (Susannah Greenwood) "is a giving and taking, an interchange of emotions, a gradual development based on physical attraction, complementary careers and simple social similarities." The recipient of this cold and clinical assessment of the vagaries of the heart, Harry (Brent Beebe), cannot believe his ears. Could this really be all there is to love? Like the other male character in this three-person play, Harry believes in the redemptive power of love, a force so strong that it easily forgives a multitude of sins, including simple social incompatibility, which Ellen and Harry have in spades.

Ellen and Harry are coming to this reckoning of their true feelings for each other, or lack thereof, because of Milt (Travis Leland), Ellen's former husband and Harry's former college chum, who reunites with Harry in the play's first scene. When we meet Harry, he is on a bridge, an obvious metaphor for a conveyance across the chasm of emptiness that is his life. He is here to kill himself. Milt has reasons of his own to be in this isolated spot at such a late hour, but seeing Harry, he recognizes his old pal, and Schisgal's post-avant-garde romantic farce is off to the races.

When Luv was first produced in 1964, with Mike Nichols directing and Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson in the starring roles, theatergoers were into their second decade of bleak, absurdist theater. They had waited in vain for resolution at the end of Waiting for Godot, for reconciliation and forgiveness at the conclusion of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Schisgal, one senses, had had enough of such indulgent and ultimately elitist exhibitions of alienation, but he was too smart to merely give his audiences the precise opposite of Beckett and Albee (that was Walt Disney's job). Instead, he used comedy to mock the aesthetics of alienation, especially in the play's first act, when, in a hilarious precursor to Monty Python, Milt and Harry engage in a game of my-childhood-was-worse-than-yours.

Director and set designer Richard T. Orlando offers a clear tip of the cap to the play's early 1960s milieu by providing his characters with a plain park bench to sit on (a nod to Albee's The Zoo Story) and a sandbox for his actors to retreat to in times of crisis (see Albee's The Sandbox). I liked these references, as well as the fact that it would be perfectly OK for audiences not to even notice them. I also liked the actors, who run with their characters at full tilt. Beebe is perfectly willing to play his Harry for the unabashed loser he is, no matter how schlumpy it makes him look. Greenwood's Ellen is also good as the brainy broad who is prepared to submerge her abundant intelligence to make her simple-minded man happy. And then there's Leland, whose hyperkinetic Milt reminded me of Milo Minderbinder from Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which Mike Nichols also directed when it was made into a film in 1970. Leland's Milt is a can-do dreamer, an unabashed romantic whose childish infatuations hold a mysterious sway over Ellen. She falls for the lug despite ample evidence suggesting she shouldn't. Could her opinion of love be somewhat less pragmatic than she professes? The sentimental male in me wants to think so.

 LUV, a Northside Theatre Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm, through July 12 (no show on Saturday July 4) at the Olinder Theatre, 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$20. (408.288.7820)

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