The title of J. Bajir Cannon's new play is a bit misleading. love/sad is heavy on the love, but pretty light on the sad. While there's something to be said for maintaining an optimistic worldview, can there truly be joy in life without pain?
Cannon's script pays lip service to the sorrows of life, primarily death and love, but the new production he has directed Clemente Soto Velez seldom deals with them in any but the most general ways. The play flatlines emotionally early on and never resuscitates itself; love/sad reveals very little relevance in terms of feelings, camouflaging its lack of expressive sentiment through highly creative staging.
It's that staging that makes love/sad particularly worthy of notice. Where Cannon fails in establishing his characters believably (or interestingly) through their dialogue, he has constructed an intriguing, individualized world that is capable of transporting the players and the audience into a completely new theatrical universe. He utilizes a series of poles to represent a grave digging, slips of paper being moved by his actors to represent birds, his actors' strengths and movements as locomotion to create the zero-gravity circumstances of the moon, and so on. The dark, confined reality of the play's "set" is deconstructed at one point (during a musical number) to reveal a new playing space of greater versatility and openness. The great joy of love/sad is in the creation of these effects and the anticipation of the next one.
Yet despite the facility and detail with which Cannon has directed his script, the play's story seldom seems moving or involving from moment to moment. The relationship between the young pilot (Steven Guy) and his devoted wife (Daria Polatin) is never established sufficiently (through word or action) to have an emotional impact when his flight to England ends him up on the moon instead. While attempting to fix his plane, and maintain his sanity by writing his wife letters she can never read, he befriends a young woman (Sara Bremen) who herself left love behind, but is established primarily through a secret that's not particularly interesting when revealed near the evening's end.
The actors' performances aren't generally able to bridge these gaps. Guy is the strongest, but he has the most to play. The other performers are straddled with more general, non-specific characters, such as the possessive queen, the mysterious and sexy prince, and so on, without enough extra establishing material. Guy is established through dialogue, but the other characters, though they speak, sing, and dance at different times, never give us a full impression of who (or why) they are. The actors want to let the staging carry them, but in no case here is that enough.
Many times, love/sad feels as though Cannon were trying to prevent it from becoming a full-out music theatre piece, but the material definitely wants to push in that direction. His dreamscape staging (aided greatly by the simplistic, yet fluid sets of Kabir Green) perfectly suggests a free-flowing atmosphere that would be aided by consistency in sound and movement, and his underlying ideas of using an exotic locale (the moon) to highlight the loneliness and distance between his characters' emotional (and physical) lives is a strong one. Were it fully realized in the text, it would be all the stronger.
If Cannon - described in his bio as a recent graduate of Wesleyan University - sees love/sad as a continually evolving piece, it is highly likely that he will find a voice to match its shape; he hasn't yet. Regardless, love/sad remains a distinctive and intriguing directorial debut for Cannon on the New York stage.