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Love Quirks

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Theresa Hui, Brian Shaw, Lauren Testerman, and Robert McCaffrey.
Photo by Mark Childers

For the four single roommates in Love Quirks, the new musical that just opened at Theatre 54, Manhattan's dating scene may as well be a war zone. Catastrophic blind dates, scheming exes, too-clingy coworkers who want too much at the wrong time, best friends who can't be converted to something more (or already were and have been downgraded)—it's a miracle that these people haven't just crawled into the sewers with a bottle of scotch and given up entirely. But in the enticing fantasy world this amiable but paper-thin show presents, optimism is the only constant. It has to be, after all, if your goal is to both survive in the Big City and not die alone.

That's the big thing that Seth Bisen-Hersh (music and lyrics) and Mark Childers (book) get right with their show; though it's almost exclusively about failed relationships and the agony they inflict on the good-hearted, it's never for a moment depressing. That's not to say it soars—it doesn't—but its light humor and generally pleasing score send the message that even loss (after loss after loss) and blown opportunities can ultimately be worth the trouble in the right circumstances. And for a musical with ambitions as simple as this one's, that's essentially enough to result in a show that's a perfectly decent, if hardly groundbreaking, evening out for New York's musical-loving frustrated romantics.

The kind of people Love Quirks is about, in other words. Steph (Lauren Testerman) and Lili (Teresa Hui) share an apartment, and are looking for a third renter now that their friend, Ryan (Brian Shaw), has moved out to live with his latest boyfriend. Chris (Robert McCaffrey) answers the ad and takes the apartment, unfortunately on the same day that Ryan is single again and hoping to move back in. Thanks to the couch in the living room, all four are able to stay, at least temporarily—which, naturally, invites a bevy of complications.

Chris, a serial womanizer, is deeply attracted to Steph (he hits on her within, oh, 30 seconds of meeting her), but she's not interested, and he's still kind of stuck on his old college girlfriend anyway. Ryan and Lili lost their virginities to each other once upon a time, but Ryan's coming out to her didn't kill their friendship, though its unexpected impact seems to have put a damper on Lili's dream of landing a good man of her own. Steph and Ryan, for their part, are just trying to find someone, which proves to be a strangely difficult task, even in a city of eight million people.

The plot doesn't get much more complex than that; predicting the general arc of the story, and most of the speed bumps along the way, is not especially challenging, though the considerable talents of the cast members, and the chemistry they share together, picks up a lot of the slack. Hui has a killer belt voice that's tied directly to Lili's existential angst (though toning down the volume when singing with others would not be a bad idea), and an appealing dry knack for comedy. McCaffrey, largely the show's straight man (so to speak), brings both a forceful energy and a hint of insecurity to his performance, making Chris the kind of sleaze you hate to love. Shaw's and Testerman's portrayals are a bit more stereotypical—the bitterly witty gay guy and the gorgeous blonde who's too morose to settle—but effective within their more limited spheres.

It's in the specifics of the writing that Love Quirks falters most. It was originally conceived (and performed in 2010) as a song cycle, with the book added later—and it feels that way. Though Childers has concocted a handful of genuinely funny lines and nicely sketched out the tangled links between the four, he's been less successful at fully integrating the score. The title song, for example, functions as the opening number, though it's never remotely clear why everyone is singing about relationship blow-ups when the overall subject appears to be apartment (and roommate) hunting. There's also the problem of songs repeating what's stated in dialogue, and vice versa, rather than the two components truly supporting each other, and these are issues that director Mark Childers, despite an otherwise efficient staging, has not been able to completely navigate around.

Bisen-Hersh is a faithful acolyte of the perfect rhyme, which is always nice to find in contemporary theatre writers, though missed stresses do cause a number of his lyrics to land uneasily on the ear. And though he's an able composer, with a knack for churning out bright, lilting melodies time after time, and chilling strains run through his strongest composition, a song for a solitaire-playing, despondent Steph who's examining her life and finds it wanting. But overall, his tunes tend toward the short and repetitive, without the lively variety or expansiveness that characterize the best musical comedies.

Love Quirks doesn't aim as high as Guys and Dolls, say, or Hello, Dolly!, of course, but that's partially by design. Embedded in it is the tacit notion that Chris, Ryan, Steph, and Lili—and for that matter, most of twentysomething New York—just aren't ready for the big stuff yet: They're working so hard to discover their own wants and needs that they don't yet have a way to give anything to anyone else. But they hold their heads high and plow on anyway, secure in the belief that they'll get there someday because, well, there just isn't any other choice. Finding the sunshine behind that particular rain cloud may not be a world-shattering accomplishment for this show's creative team, but if nothing else they've succeeded at telling a story today's struggling singles probably really need to hear.

Love Quirks
Through September 28
Theatre 54, 244 West 54th Street between 8th and Broadway, 12th Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: