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Love, Love, Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 19, 2016

Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan, with Alex Hurt
Photo by Joan Marcus

"All you need is love."

That sentence, sent to a catchy, swaying melody and sung by a well-known group of mop-topped Liverpudlians, is heard a number of times throughout the incisive new comedy, Love, Love, Love, which just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre in a Roundabout Theatre Company production. But if those words represent, even for those (like me) who missed The Beatles in their heyday, a purity and optimism too often lacking in today's culture, playwright Mike Bartlett is determined to show you that—sorry to break it to you—they're bunk.

Such expectation upending should likely be considered given from the writer of the tangled triangle Cock (which played Off-Broadway in 2012) and the Shakespeare twist-up King Charles III (seen on Broadway last season). But even so, Love, Love, Love is a devilish delight, packed with the kind of uproarious surprises, ironic echoes, and self-consuming insights that are pretty rare in the theatre today, but that inspire joy in the most devoted whenever they appear.

Because of this, it's difficult to say too much about what Bartlett does or how he does it without dulling the impact that builds across three acts (with two intermissions!) and marginally more than two hours of playing time. And relating merely what happens in the first of the acts doesn't tell you much about what Bartlett really has in mind.

What can be safely stated is that, when Act I starts, we are witnessing some sort of history in the making. It's a London flat on June 25, 1967, and Kenneth (Richard Armitage), an athletic but unmotivated Oxford student, is engrossed by the BBC broadcast of Our World, the world's first live, international satellite production that united great artists from some two dozen nations in a single showcase. His evening of sloth is soon interrupted by his older (by four years) and much more serious brother, Henry (Alex Hurt), who's just returned home from work—Kenneth subsists entirely on a grant, and thus doesn't need a job—and wants nothing more than Kenneth to clear out so he can have a girl over for dinner.

Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan, with
Zoe Kazan and Ben Rosenfield
Photo by Joan Marcus

Once she arrives, though, in the modish person of Sandra (Amy Ryan), with falling-bangs hair and a form-fitting dress, it becomes clear that it's the buttoned-up Henry, not Kenneth, who's the real third wheel. And once he steps out for fish and chips, it doesn't take too long for the couple remaining behind to bond.

"Are you old-fashioned, Kenneth?", Sandra asks.

"No. I get bored easily. I like new things. I like things that are fresh."

"The world's going to be a different place in ten years," Sandra coos. "Everything that's stopping us, what we're told to do, what we're told is the way to live, it'll all be different. You can feel it." She knows exactly what she's saying, too. "Young people, our age. We're the moment."

As we're to soon learn, they are indeed. This means more than either of them realizes at first, however, and the rest of the play is dedicated to showing exactly what its ultimate significance is as their relationship progresses and evolves (or, perhaps, devolves) while they embrace the Beatles dictum that's playing on Our World during their first dance together: Yes, "Love Is All You Need."

Critical in the exploration of what happens to them is the eventual emergence and development of two other characters, Jamie (Ben Rosenfield) and Rose (Zoe Kazan), who come to represent Kenneth and Sandra's same ideals as filtered through contrasting sets of lenses and experiences. The second act, set during a milestone birthday, uproariously reveals the first sprouts of discord and disintegration creeping into the now-couple's neo-Bohemian lifestyle; the third, placed after a key life event of a very different kind, displays it in full, suffocating bloom.

Armitage (best known from the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies) and Ryan (A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, Gone Baby Gone on film) do not look the slightest bit convincing in Act I, when they're both playing 19-year-olds at their most unspoiled, but in every other way they're superb at depicting the toll freedom unchecked by morality takes on the perpetrator. Gliding smoothly from layabout to stressed-out and back again, Armitage alternately deploys cluelessness and slick sophistication with equal facility. And Ryan infuses Sandra with a lacerating wit and magnetic confidence that let you see just why she's able to exert such a magnetic pull over the men in her life.

Though their parts are considerably smaller and less consequential, Rosenfield, Kazan, and Hurt bring them to life no less surely, with Kazan in particular in absolute comedic command of her surroundings at every moment. (She becomes a blinding blaze of sympathetic hilarity in Act II, when Rose's world crumbles at the worst imaginable time.) Michael Mayer's direction is excellent, concise and creative, at guiding us down the path of this circuitous partnership. The sets (Derek McLane) and costumes (Susan Hilferty) gorgeously outline the necessary changes in locales and viewpoints, and are ably supported by David Lander's lights and Kai Harada's sound.

Everything is so tightly orchestrated and executed, in fact, that the letdown of Act III has a more deflating effect than it otherwise might. In a climactic speech by Rose, Bartlett abandons subtlety and subtext altogether and starts preaching outright, but it's not something the freewheeling construction is primed to support. You end up on a side you're clearly not supposed to be on, because Rose's arguments are neither convincing on their own nor backed up by what we've seen in the play to that point. You can't conjure a political treatise out of thin air, but that's just what Bartlett tries, and its only the unquestionable accomplishment of what's come before that keeps the whole thing from falling completely flat.

Bartlett works infinitely better under the radar, delivering his compelling social commentary with wry humor, precisely timed shocks (he knows just when repeating a phrase he's used earlier will do the most delicious damage), and exactly the right amount of heart to fool you into believing, once again, that love is all you need. Even if it isn't, a few more plays like Love, Love, Love at its best would be all New Yorkers would need to have a killer fall theatre season.

Love, Love, Love
Through December 18
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, The Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: