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Love Child

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton
Photo by James Leynse.

Love Child, the theatrical brainchild of Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton, may be based on a Greek tragedy, but it's anything but tragic. Centering on the dizzying creation and the daft aftermath of getting through one performance of an Off-Off-Broadway play, it gives Jenkins and Stanton ideal opportunities for showcasing their serious comic acting chops. The writing of this breezy 90-minute outing, which uses the Primary Stages stage when the company's production of A Body of Water is not in performance, is less sure, but most of the time you'll be laughing too much to care.

Playing over a dozen characters without even the benefit of costume changes, Jenkins and Stanton are demonstrating a knack for quick-flip versatility that challenges that of Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton in The 39 Steps on Broadway. Under the frenetic but precise direction of Carl Forsman, they effortlessly slip into and out of an astonishing array of genders, ages, and ethnicities, without ever losing sight of the mechanics of their convoluted stardust story. As the personalities mount, and occasionally topple, you realize how endlessly resourceful each man is as both actor and comedian.

And yes, Euripides is at the heart of it all. Or, rather, his seldom-performed play Ion, about a disastrous intermingling between the God Apollo, the Oracle at Delphi, a girl named Kreousa, and the baby that draws them all together, which somehow ends relatively happily. ("Maybe that's why it's never done," one character notes. "Nobody eats their children.") A struggling actor named Joel (Jenkins) is directing a modern adaptation, titled Love Child, at a tiny Red Hook performance space nestled behind a sausage restaurant, not knowing a big-time casting director in the audience wants him for a hot Hollywood TV series.

Also in the audience are Joel's agent Kay and her ditzy friend Ethel, who by way of cell phone, hearing aid, and their general presence become at least as much a part of the show as Joel. Onstage, an oil slick makes entrances and exits treacherous, a grandstanding Latina diva can't wait to take her moment in the spotlight by any means necessary, and a visitor to Delphi Sanchez (the TV psychic character) passes out in the middle of a reading. There's also the small matter of Joel not knowing the truth about his parentage, and most of the other characters knowing much more than they're willing to tell. Chaos, perhaps predictably, ensues.

It doesn't take long after the start of the performance-within-the-performance for both Love Childs to lapse into utter ridiculousness. That's also when you start to feel the wear and tear of a narrative that sometimes lumbers, rather than saunters, toward its destination. While events are supposed to rise to a certain Hellenistic level of improbability, the revelations leave you constantly wondering "What's next?" - and not in a good way. Jenkins and Stanton go overboard in stressing the importance of each of the branches of the bizarre family tree flooding the stage by the conclusion.

They're much more successful at evoking love and affection for the greater theatrical family: the people onstage and off who are responsible for bringing even ramshackle shows like Joel's Love Child to life. Scenes in the actors' dressing room beautifully define each of the cast members, from the grizzled veteran on down. Kay and Ethel are a delightful look at audience members from hell and agents going through (and putting their clients through) hell, without ever losing sight of their inherent humanity. One brief bit even makes an addled stage manager a world-class laugh-getter.

You won't particularly need to adore the theater to love Love Child, though it does presuppose some familiarity with backstage life and the content and structure of Greek tragedy that could baffle the uninitiated. Luckily, Jenkins and Stanton's rigidly disciplined clowning well help illuminate the piece's darkest obscurities. Even if the exact machinations of their characters are not always all they could be, they'll communicate everything you need to know through the international language of comedy. By the time the evening is through, don't be surprised if you feel fluent in that yourself.

Love Child
Through November 19
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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