Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In this Marin Theatre Company production, the play opens in 2018 and Penelope is meeting a former colleague, Vanessa (Rebecca Schweitzer), to talk about their former boss at ArtStart, Otis (R. Ward Duffy), who is the subject of a New York Times investigation because Vanessa and several other ArtStart employees have accused him of sexual harassment. It's clear Vanessa isn't really close to Penelope ("I enjoyed re-establishing our connection, as well," she says, with all the emotional depth of a voicemail prompt), but wonders if she will be adding her name to the list of Otis's accusers.
This is where Love gets interesting. Penelope takes a meeting with Ron (Robert Sicular), the Times reporter working on the story. Rather than piling on Otis and joining the chorus of women accusing him, Penelope presents as a strong, highly intelligent woman who doesn't look back at the events of 14 years prior as a victim, but tells Ron she was a willing participant and enjoyed the sexual aspect of the relationship with a man many years her senior. "Sex with guys in their 20s is a soul-crushing, orgasm-faking disaster," she says.
Unlike David Mamet's Oleanna, which addressed sexual politics and political correctness and the way powerful men's influence shapes the way younger women experience a relationship between them, Love focuses not on the blame game but on how a woman can enter into such a relationship on her own terms. But about halfway through the play, things change. As Jaime (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari), Penelope's friend, lover and husband (at various points during the action) says, the greatest intellectual leap is not from zero to one on a number line, or even zero to infinity, "The greatest leap is nothing to zero." In other words, from not knowing anythingeven that there is something to know that you don't, but from knowing nothing to knowing that there is something to know. Even if you don't know what it is you don't know, at least you know it's there to be learned.
And this is where Love starts to go off the rails. It leaves behind the fascinating question of where seduction ends and harassment and abuse of power begin, and ventures off into a series of scenes in which Penelope begins, it seems, to learn there are things she doesn't even know that she doesn't know. It all leads to some very unsatisfying drama and unmotivated actions by many of the characters. These I cannot further elucidate without spoiling Cortesi's plot. I will say that she mostly avoids moments I was expectingthe times when the creepy boss manipulates an underling into doing something that makes her uncomfortable. Rather, we mostly see the ripples, rather than the moment the pebble falls and sends those ripples outward.
Yet, despite the skittering trajectory of Love that sends it off into an odd and unsatisfying territory, there is much to like about the play. I loved the first 45 minutes, but I also was enraptured by Clea Alsip's performance as Penelope. She takes Cortesi's dialogue and plays it like an Ornette Coleman solo: it soars and squawks and whispers and shouts and dares you not to listen to it. It's not always easy to listen to, but it's always rewarding. She's also able to be giggly and fun-loving and feminine without ever losing her inherent power and force of will. As Jaime, Bakhtiari is restrained, yet fully present in each scene. He represents the best kind of male energy, and stands in stark contrast to Otis, who seems to follow his penis wherever it wants to go.
The set design by Stephanie Osin Cohen and projections by Teddy Hulsker are bold and elegant. The large type projected across a massive flat that spans the width of the stage and is equal in height to the space beneath it where the action plays out (using just a few items of furniture) not only sets the time and place (2018, A Dive Bar; 2004, The ArtStart Offices, etc.), it feels a bit like a Times Square readerboard or newspaper headline where the accusations leveled against Otis may play out if Penelope joins her female colleagues.
This is a world premiere, so it's the first time an audience has been exposed to this story. It has a powerful message, and if Cortesi can peel away the unnecessary layers and refocus the second half, Love could become a fantastic exploration of the complex interactions at play between men and women with disparate levels of power and influencepolitical, professional, and personal.
Love runs through March 29, 2020 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$70, with discounts for seniors, those under 35, military families and teachers. For tickets and information, visit marintheatre.org, or call the box office at 415-388-5208.