With New York theater currently awash with revivals, often with movie-star cast members and big, big budgets, it can appear that new original, innovative, and inspirational non-musical works will not be taking center stage in the theater district anytime soon. So we give thanks to Off-Off Broadway's La Mama, and playwright Jill Campbell's spectacular Chemistry of Love, for waking me up to the fact that new and engaging permutations of stagecraft are still a possibility.
While Chemistry of Love certainly has a coherent plot, a simple synopsis of this resoundingly compelling play by Ms. Campbell could not do it justice. Like the creative works and lives of the conceptual multimedia artists (which this play explores), there is a complex multi-leveled richness to the play's action.
The story of this four-character play centers on conceptual artist Lara (Kim Merrill), who has been short-listed for a $500,000 grant, to be awarded if the judging committee deems her presentation the best of the nominees. The first scene has Lara and three friends in a bar, celebrating both her nomination and an advance check of $100,000 (returnable if she does not come up with a suitable work to present to the committee). Present are her best friend from childhood, Karen (Jenne Vath), who is an amusing yet troubled divorcee/single mom with money issues, a problem son, and a recalcitrant former husband; Tyler (Matt Baxter Luceno), a successful artist, competitor, and former collaborator and boyfriend (who would like Karen back); and Florant (Dennis Parlato), an artist of distinguished looks and urbane manner, who is also a manipulative competitor who oils all his pronouncements with the gobbledygook of "deconstruction" so rife in the world of art theory.
The three artists live and compete in the rarified world where that language (such as is spoken by Lara in a voiceover interview at the play's commencement) seems perfectly normal: "Contrary to the viewers strenuously eschewed assertions, there might lie subverted, trans-morphosized aspects of the presented vision that delve into concepts of epistemological expression thereby taking its form in media and/or visual emortification...." Luckily Lara does not speak much further like that as the play progresses, leaving such talk to Florant. Tyler is a youngish, genial goofus but a "serious" artist who gets highfaluting commissions and shows. Karen is not an artist, but when Lara inadvertently drops the $100,000 advance check in a toilet during a girl bathroom break, Karen, jestingly snaps a photo of the check floating in the bowl. Later in the scene Florant claims that the photo shows Karen has latent artistic talent, but she objects, "I'm the audience. I'm the one you do the work for...there's too much other stuff I'm dealing with; I'm just not like that, you know?" Lonely for male companionship, Karen fancies Florant, and he, an amorous predator, encourages her to be a conceptual artist, thus transforming Karen into yet another competitor for Lara to deal with. Karen's newfound identity as an artist, and her affair with Florant, go to her head with vastly calamitous results for all concerned.
The use of multimedia in the play -- via several flat-screen monitors suspended above the actors -- punctuates and comments on the unfolding action. For example: Karen meets with Lara, after Lara's romance with Florant is established and her transformation into an "artist" is well underway. Lara, who has by now won the half million grant, is "working" on her big project and the work-in-progress visible on the screens amusingly takes its cues from Karen and Lara's exchanges. Another example is Lara and Florant visiting Tyler's exhibition, which documents Tyler's now-defunct love affair with Lara. Florant and Lara comment on the exhibition in the video displays, while on stage Lara and Tyler perform a live reenactment of the what-was in the exhibit. In this live rendering Lara and Tyler repeat the same scene over and over, and then do it again in slow motion, and then in fast motion. This interactive integration of video and live action makes for a compelling theatrical experience. I have seen video and live action used in other plays, but not in a manner which so skillfully moves the action forward and enlivens the play's overall theatricality.
There are a number of startling moments in Chemistry of Love when it seemed to me that Ms. Campbell had just gone too far into the absurd or ridiculous, only to later realize that, no, she has not gone too far! Characters such as these "artists" cannot help but go too far in all domains of life, in the course of sustaining careers or filling the time while their careers languish. Florant attempts to seduce Karen, not with the language of romance but with the kind of phrases which typically appear in catalogs for unintelligible exhibitions at modern art museums. Karen repeatedly repulses Florant's initial advances in a manner reminiscent of the scene in Charles Ludlam's Enchanted Pig, wherein the pig (which is a prince under a spell) tries to kiss his intended and she is repulsed by his barnyard stench so their lips never touch. Spaced out in the course of the play are three (three!) mad scenes, each with increasing intensity and each with its individual flair: Tyler, intensely drunk, intruding on Lara in her studio, beseeching her resume their affair; Lara freaking out in her studio under the pressure of "it all"; and finally Karen going totally berserk in MOMA after receiving a $50,000 offer for her work as an artist and fuming after an intense off-stage argument with Florant.
All four actors give fine, authentic performances in roles that lesser players would let slip into cliché. They are consistently outstanding in both lighter, humorous and darker, serious scenes. In addition, I doubt that Chemistry of Love in the hands of someone other than La Mama's resident director, George Ferencz, would have been the success that it is. The direction of the first act was so fluid and seamless that when lights went up for intermission, nearly an hour after the play started, I was startled that time had passed so quickly, and in the second act, I lost all sense of time. Mr. Ferencz's direction and Ms. Campbell's words and stage directions are a perfect match.
Donald Eastman's scenic design strongly supported the action of the play. In particular, Mr. Eastmen created the most ingenious design of the kind of tiny ladies' room for which the bars of New York are infamous. Jonathan Phelps provided the handsomely designed media and beautifully executed video work, which both punctuated and forwarded the live action of the play. Tim Schellenbaum's sound design, coupled with Jack Ferencz's minimalist music, added an aural component to Chemistry of Love that enhanced the overall dramatic atmosphere of the play.
Chemistry of Love is the kind of robust and innovative theater that, decades ago, Broadway produced in abundance, but which is now found primarily outside of the confines of the Broadway theater district. The outstanding quality of this work leaves you marveling at the performances, the writing, the whole experience -- and has you exiting the theater knowing you have witnessed authentic theatrical artistry. - Jay Reisberg
Photo credit: Emily Boland
La Mama is at 74 East Fourth Street in Manhattan.
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.