Monday, November 7, 2016

Bits and Pieces: Love, Love, Love and Tiger Style

Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan in the Roundabout Theatre's production of Love, Love, Love. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Love, Love, Love
is a Mike Bartlett play from 2010 that is only now receiving its first American production, by the Roundabout Theatre in its off-Broadway space (Laura Pels Theatre). Bartlett, who wrote Cock and Wild, as well as the acclaimed King Charles III, is one of the most talented of the current generation of English playwrights, and I had a fine time at this play for the first two acts, which are a highly stylized comedy of manners. In act one, set in a north London flat in 1967, a straight arrow named Henry (Alex Hurt) invites a woman he’s been seeing, Sandra (Amy Ryan), home for dinner, only to see her fall for Kenneth (Richard Armitage), the hippie kid brother he’s been putting up, with escalating exasperation. In act two, set in 1990, Sandra and Kenneth are married and living comfortably in suburban Reading with their two teenagers, Rose (Zoe Kazan), who is anxious about everything, and Jamie (Ben Rosenfield), who’s affable and skin-deep. The marriage falls apart by the end of the act, after they’ve owned up to infidelities on both sides.

Bartlett is a master of dramatic language, and each time out he wants to try something new. King Charles III is a political satire written in blank verse that suggests a contemporary approach to a Shakespearean history (though the play it references most is a tragedy, Macbeth). Cock and Wild are absurdist but vastly unalike: the first is a kind of post-Pinter comedy of menace in which a middle-aged gay man and a straight young woman fight over a young bisexual man, the second is a take on the Edward Snowden story that’s more like Tom Stoppard, but with crazier and more extravagant stagecraft. Both, I think, are terrific pieces of theatre. (I was less enthralled by King Charles III, though I admired its ambitions.) In Love, Love, Love, Bartlett takes on the persona of an English Paul Mazursky – particularly the young Mazursky of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the more far-flung parts of Blume in Love – though he has a less affectionate attitude toward his discombobulated characters. What he’s burlesquing here is the sixties generation, and Amy Ryan, as a privileged narcissist entirely without a filter, who still, in her forties, carries the liberal banner of her youth, gives a brilliantly sustained – I’d say inspired – comic performance.

The problem is that Bartlett doesn’t have a third act. When we return to the characters in 2011, Rose, at thirty-seven, is unhappy in both her personal and her professional lives, and Jamie, two years younger, has had a breakdown (we see it happen, more or less, at the end of act two) and, barely functional, lives with his dad. The tone has shifted; except for Sandra’s contributions (that is, Ryan’s), it’s mostly dead serious. Rose delivers a screed about the way her parents’ generation has screwed over the world in general and its children in particular, and it’s such a sad-sack piece of dramaturgy you don’t know where to look while she’s ranting. It kills Kazan’s performance, too: in act two she delivers a dead-on caricature of a sixteen-year-old girl whose parents’ every move embarrasses the hell out of her, but she’s lost in act three, because it’s hard to do any real acting when you’re stuck as the voice of the playwright lecturing the audience.

Still, two-thirds of an uproarious comedy is nothing to sneeze at. Mike Mayer directed Love, Love, Love, and, Kazan’s understandable flame-out in act three aside, he’s done really good work with the actors, including Hurt, who is only in act one. (Having seen and liked him in Dada Woof Papa Hot last season, I kept wishing Bartlett would bring back his character – especially since his banter with Armitage, played very fast, is so entertaining.) Bartlett has written them such wonderful dialogue in the first two acts that you can imagine their gratitude. He’s a major talent, and a prolific one; at thirty-six, according to his bio in the playbill he’s written thirteen plays as well as pieces for radio and TV. I can’t wait to see the next one.

Emily Kuroda, Jon Norman Schneider, and Ruibo Qian in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Tiger Style!
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The first act of Mike Lew’s Tiger Style!, currently playing in the Huntington Theatre Company’s second space at the Calderwood Pavilion, is an inconsistently funny satire of the plight of twenty-something Chinese Americans, raised to be fierce overachievers and dissatisfied with the roles they’re stuck in. Albert (Jon Norman Schneider) and his sister Jenny (Ruibo Qian), who share an apartment in Irvine, California, are Harvard grads. He’s a medical software engineer; she’s a doctor with a Ph.D. as well as a medical degree, and among their other talents they used to have careers as classical musicians. But Jenny gets dumped by her white boyfriend (Bryan T. Donovan), who is in every way inferior to her but whom she’s been struggling to please, while Albert’s Asian boss (Francis Jue) passes him over for promotion in favor of a white guy (Donovan) who’s more or less an idiot but whose personality he finds more likable. Fed up with the way their lives have turned out, and the way they’re alternately forced into Chinese stereotypes and undervalued by the white world, the siblings decide – like Rose in Love, Love, Love – to confront their parents (Jue and Emily Kuroda), whom they blame for raising them “tiger style,” making them neurotic with their demands for perfection but not preparing them emotionally for failure and disappointment. When their parents deflect their complaints, they decide to move to China and see if Eastern solutions might work better than Western ones.

That’s when (in act two) the play goes south. Lew runs out of clever ideas and falls back on scenarios that are so broad and cartoonish they make your teeth ache. His satiric observations don’t add up to a play, and even in the first act he can’t sustain his humor. When Jenny and Albert lay out their beefs to their parents, their dad replies with a speech about his own father’s difficult immigrant life that is so earnest that it seems to belong in some other play; it’s as if Lew, who sends up everything else, just didn’t have the heart to make jokes when a Chinese man is talking about the previous generation’s struggles with poverty and racism. And though Lew can write funny one-liners, just as often he resorts to banality. When he doesn’t have a punch line, he throws in an expletive, as if holy shit or motherfucker were irresistibly hilarious on their own.

The best thing about Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production is a combination of Wilson Chin’s set and Alex Koch’s witty projections. The worst thing, I have to say, is the acting, which is mostly shameless mugging, often at a surprisingly amateurish level. Kuroda and Donovan are perfectly OK (she also plays Jenny’s therapist and the siblings’ Chinese cousin), and Jue matches up well with Kuroda when they’re cast as the parents, but the funnier his characters are supposed to be the worse he gets. In the roles of the play’s dual protagonists, Schneider and Qian run out of ideas about halfway through act one. The show appears to be fighting to turn into a play until intermission, and you think that maybe it could get there with better acting and better direction. Almost as soon as act two gets going, you feel Lew has thrown in the towel, and you feel like doing the same.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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