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Chicago by John Olson

Love Song
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of Cradle of Man

Love Song
Ian Barford and Mariann Mayberry
In recent months, researcher/writers have made the rounds of the morning TV shows promoting their books on the psychology and biochemistry of love and attraction, so John Kolvenbach's new play on love's redemptive powers is a timely meditation on the topic. He may not have enough for a full-length play, but with the help of director Austin Pendleton and a typically first-rate Steppenwolf cast, he has enough to give an audience an enjoyable hour and a half.

Beane is a toll booth worker in the depths of depression and living alone in a small, sparsely furnished and usually unlit room in a big city. Returning home from visiting his sister and brother-in-law one evening, he sees a female burglar in his room that not only robs him of all his possessions but also confronts him on his solitary and pathetic life. Though she's unarmed, he is something of a hostage, telling her "I think a person can have you at gunpoint whether or not you have a gun." She returns a day or two later and quickly, inexplicably, he becomes obsessed with her and a passionate affair begins. It drags Beane out of his depression and he is suddenly able to find amazement in everyday things as mundane as a turkey sandwich. His businesswoman sister Joan and her husband Harry, their own lives dulled a bit by pressures of work and urban life, are initially alarmed at the suddenness and intensity of Beane's new love interest. Before long they are inspired by it and it helps them find new passion in their own marriage.

Pendleton and his cast find the perfect tone to make something this simple work, giving it a fast pace and the irony of a Jules Pfeifer cartoon. Ian Barford as Beane is as limp and rumpled as the costumes Rachel Anne Healy designed for him, with droopy eyelids that look like they weigh thirty pounds each. He can keep the audience's attention while sitting completely still as well as he can jump into an upside-down masturbatory pantomime while hanging from his sister's steel canopy bed frame. His benign detachment is contrasted beautifully with the high-strung yet sympathetic characters of his sister (Molly Regan) and brother-in-law (Francis Guinan). Mariann Mayberry plays Beane's love interest Molly like a female urban commando - as alienated from society as Beane is, but choosing to attack it rather than retreat as has Beane. She is profane and offensive but attractive to Beane for having the nerve he lacks.

In addition to taking the premise of love's power to resurrect lost souls into an otherwise unromantic situation, Kolvenbach adds a few new twists. Perhaps it isn't entirely necessary to be the one in love to be rejuvenated by that love? Kolvenbach has another theory that I'll have to leave unspoken if I'm not going to give you a spoiler. While a fun and entertaining piece (with the exception of two extended riffs, one by Harry and Joan and the other by Beane and Molly, that go on way too long after they've stopped being interesting), it's a bit slight to qualify as a full-length play. At maybe an hour and twenty minutes of playing time, it could easily be edited into a tight one-act.

Chicago has seen quite a few recreations of contemporary urban homes on stage in the past twelve months (Robert Brill's sets for The Well-Appointed Room for Dollhouse, and Dan Ostling's for The Pain and the Itch), but Brian Sidney Bembridge's design for this production is the best of the lot. Primarily a representation of Harry and Joan's apartment, with its loft-like appearance, high-end stainless steel kitchen appliances and elevated platform for the architect canopy bed, it's as convincingly Metropolitan Home as any of the others mentioned. Behind it is a series of windows from neighboring buildings which are occasionally backlit to look frighteningly close. As a representation of the big city's capacity for alienation among the crowd, this bank of windows is as ominous as a backdrop for Beane's tiny room (played downstage center with only a few props) as it is against Harry and Joan's comfortable surroundings. The Chicago-based Bembridge is a major talent I predict is likely to soon reach national prominence. His set is complemented by the dark and moody lighting design by Michelle Habeck.

Love Song will be performed through June 4th at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street, Chicago. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. There will be Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m. on May 10, 17, 24 and 31. There will be no Sunday evening performances on May 24, 21, and 28 or on June 4th. For ticket information, call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

Photo: Michael Brosilow


Photo: Liz Lauren

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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