The Midtown International Theatre Festival
At its best, exposition is a rocky relationship; at its worst, it’s a bad breakup. But if playwrights may need to rattle off some salient facts to get their shows moving, at some point they and their characters must shut up and let the story take over. In Martin Dove’s Love Me Tinder, which plays its final performance today at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, that moment never arrives, and a potentially promising premise drowns in too many words for even Shakespeare or Stoppard to endure.
Not that there aren’t times when a lot must be said. Dove has certainly happened on one. In suburban New Jersey, mild-mannered, 31-year-old Thomas (Ryan Wesley Gilreath) is shocked to answer a knock at his door and discover Dusty (Kasey Braxton), a friend from high school who vanished without explanation a decade ago. If Dusty doesn’t necessarily expect he’ll be able to reclaim his old life, he at least wants to reclaim the people in it; Thomas, his former best friend, is stop number one. Stop number two would be his girlfriend Cindy, but Dusty doesn’t have to go very far to find her — she’s been living with Thomas for nine years.
Dusty claims to have been imprisoned in Mexico during his absence, the victim of local politics and an inability to speak Spanish. He now wears a leather jacket and drives a motorcycle, a reportedly reformed rebel whose past prevents him from planning for anything but the present. Thomas, on the other hand, works at a sewage-treatment plant and works off sour emotions by listening to Elvis Presley LPs (yes, actual LPs). Cindy (Brandi Wilson), an award-winning photojournalist who’s made her name in war zones, got hot and heavy with Dusty once, but has now settled down with (or settled for?) Thomas, and isn’t sure how to face her abandoning ex again.
If you think this sounds like a scintillating setup for a searing character study and a knock-down battle for Cindy’s conflicted affections, you’re right. Unfortunately, Cove never lets it get that far.
He never demonstrates the depths of Dusty and Thomas’s friendship, because Dusty spends so much time telling us about his time in Mexico; then, when Cindy walks in, he needs to repeat the story. Similarly, we must take it on faith that Cindy could fall for both Dusty and Thomas, as get to know practically nothing about the personality that may make it possible. Luckily, Dove eventually abandons the “Who will Cindy choose?” question altogether, when Dusty falls afoul of the law and ends up in a shoot-out in which he spends about 10 minutes of stage time relating more details of his life to a cop over a speakerphone.
Dove plays the cop, an interesting suggestion that character and actor alike both think talk will solve all problems. But real fun and real depth can only come from our seeing how the characters react to developments around them, and how their lives change as a result. Someone gets punched and several gunshots are fired, but these events convey little in the way of excitement because they just seem like launching pads for more background dialogue. Director Joshua Barbour can’t make any of this interesting, but no one could — the material doesn’t warrant much more than a sit-and-talk strategy that, by its nature, can’t sustain itself past a few minutes.
The actors have it rough for the same reasons. How many ways are there for Gilreath to play milquetoast and Braxton to play mysterious-serious or seriously mysterious? You see them all, though Braxton’s versions have a slightly longer shelf life because his character is somewhat better defined. Wilson delivers the closest thing to a complete performance, showing us how Cindy is caught between what she once wanted and what she now has. But Wilson is limited by the few colors Dove has assigned Cindy; she’s the lynchpin of two men’s lives, so we really should know more about how she’s become who she is, and the sole character trait of her career — represented by a Herculean (and beautifully delivered) monologue about the horrors she witnessed while working in Somalia — doesn’t cut it.
With all the speechifying surrounding Cindy, it’s surprising that more isn’t revealed about her and about everyone. But that’s the ironic indignity of establishing dialogue: The more it’s used, the less it accomplishes. The Golden Rule of Playwriting may sound like a cliché today, but it exists specifically to prevent good ideas from not developing because playwrights don’t know when enough is enough: “Show, don’t tell.” Ignore that, and the resulting play may feel — as Love Me Tinder does — like an evening where the exposition never, ever ends.
Love Me Tinder