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Nobody Loves You

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bryan Fenkart, Roe Hartrampf, Lauren Molina, and Heath Calvert
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Those who've despaired in recent years about musicals trending away from genuine emotions and into more superficial realms will not be heartened by Nobody Loves You—even though it purports to address exactly that concern. For this new show at Second Stage, librettist-lyricist Itamar Moses and composer-lyricist Gaby Alter try to fuse musical theatre and that most one-dimensional of television forms, the reality series, and wind up with something that comes across as not quite musical and not quite real.

The problems, with both the writing and Michelle Tattenbaum's production, are baked into the concept. Rather than revolving around an American Idol–style singing contest (which would be more natural format), the central enterprise here is, as the title suggests, a dating show. In it, a group of attractive, volatile young adults are thrust together into an unreasonably gorgeous house where every moment of the hook-ups and breakups they pursue is recorded for public consumption.

This opens the door to some tasty possibilities between the likes of chaste and religious Christian (Roe Hartrampf), the sexually and socially liberated Megan (Lauren Molina), and the laid-back Samantha (Autumn Hurlbert), and gives Moses plenty of opportunities to tweak the expected conventions. The smarmy host, Byron (Heath Calvert), is a little too into his job; and elimination challenges involve the distribution of signed mix CDs: Anyone who doesn't get one doesn't return the following week.

But mocking is the most the authors do with these situations. The inherent ridiculousness of the premise and its mechanics (one scene-length song is appropriately titled "Obstacle Course of Love"), compounded by the interference of the producers (at one point a ruptured water main forces two characters to share a room and a bed) and the careful editing of the footage they acquire, prevents any relationship from being natural—and that leaves no one with anything worth singing about. Large chunks of the 90-minute running time depend on your caring about what happens to this trio, but no good reason to do so is ever proffered.

To better focus your attention, Moses and Alter dwell most of the time on the romantic challenges facing another contestant, Jeff (Bryan Fenkart). He broke up with his girlfriend Tanya over her love of the series, and applies to it at the same time she does in an attempt to win her back. When he makes the cut but she doesn't, he decides to stick around to both prove the false underpinnings of the series and gather information for his dissertation on ontology (which deals with—what else?—the nature of reality). While he's doing so, he falls in love with associate producer Jenny (Aleque Reid), who isn't supposed to have anything to do with him.

Aleque Reid and Rory O'Malley
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Exploring how visions of fact and fiction differ depending on whether one is in front of or behind the camera isn't a bad idea, and has been addressed in other plays (most recently last month, in the Atlantic Theater Company's Good Television). But without a strong dramatic anchor and vivid characters to give weight to the idea, the concept can feel flimsy and even exploitative in its own right.

Moses, a variable playwright whose works are as diverse as the classically influenced Bach at Leipzig, the sports-doping exposé Back Back Back, and the more modern and experimental The Two of Us and Completeness, does not surmount this obstacle. He displays a keen ear for the empty-headed dialogue contestants and hosts on these shows spout ("Calista? It's time to pack your things and leave the house. Because? Nobody loves you"), and the scenarios he devises for setting up and resolving the ultimate conflict are so plausible, it's surprising some show hasn't already implemented them. But it's not enough on its own.

Though Alter has supplied some catchy tunes (which Alter has bouncily orchestrated with the help of Dan Lipton; Vadim Feichtner is the musical director), the songs don't help contribute much additional depth or insight. Jeff and Jenny's anti-love duet, "So Much to Hate," which underscores the similarities in the couple-to-be's very divergent lifestyles, is as close as things get to wit. Otherwise, even when it's trying its hardest (which is much of the time), this is a musical that struggles to find cause to sing but never passes up an opportunity anyway. A more pointed nonmusical comedy, with the same cast, staged with the same distracting flair Tattenbaum has managed on Mark Wendland's same nightclub-suave set (as lit by Ben Stanton), would strain less to prove itself.

The performers are talented singers and dancers (the energetic, if forgettable, choreography is by Mandy Moore), but lack the charisma needed to sell these people amid such dullish circumstances. Hurlbert is a bit over the top as the free-spirited Samantha, but seems most affected and in tune with the world around her. The ever-wonderful Leslie Kritzer is underused in the supporting roles of Tanya, a meddlesome producer, and a raucously urban cast-off prior to the Final Five, but she sparkles every time she's onstage.

Rory O'Malley, best known for originating Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon, pulls off a similar hat trick. As Jeff's roommate and a contestant with a deep-seated suspicion of women, he turns in two wildly different but grounded portrayals of easily confused straight men. But when tasked with playing Evan, an overzealous gay fan who just can't stop tweeting about the show, he unleashes a giddy fury that infectiously captures the caffeinated behavior of anyone who's ever gotten too into TV for their own good.

"Hashtag so excited" Evan oozes at one point, as he leaps around his room and tweets on his smartphone. Watching O'Malley throw himself headfirst into fandom is the evening's kinetic highlight, and it's tough not to love how involved he gets with it all. Based on what's on the stage rather than the screen, there's not much in Nobody Loves You to get quite that excited about yourself.

Nobody Loves You
Through August 11
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
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