The New York Times, Tuesday, December 4, 2001

Critic's Notebook

New Twist on a Timeless Preoccupation

by Bruce Weber

It takes a certain gall to write about love these days, not merely as an element of a story but as a serious subject. For one thing, there's the challenge of being articulate and interesting, not to mention original, in an arena where everyone claims experience if not expertise and where so much familiar wisdom is so often repeated that it often feels as though nothing is left to say. For another thing, in the idiom of contemporary storytelling, love is rather a mundane issue, the lightweight stuff of resolvable conflict.

But here is the playwright Charles L. Mee with the forthright assertion that love is all there is. in "First Love," presented earlier this fall at the New York Theater Workshop, he told the story of a man and woman, both in their 70's, who fall for each other passionately and for both good and ill subvert their long-established solo lives.

And now with the concurrent appearance of two other plays — "True Love," the inaugural production at a new Off Broadway house, the Zipper Theater (336 West 37th Street), and "Big Love," a 2000 work having its New York premiere at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Sunday — Mr. Mee has completed his argument that in its various forms love is so consuming that it is fully capable of providing the motivations and upheavals that generate history.

Mostly but not entirely the plays are about sexual love, and each contends, quite literally, that the battle of the sexes is to the death. That's one of the things that makes both "True Love" and "Big Love" more engaging than "First Love," which succumbs in the end to sentimentality and in any case doesn't carry the brawny conviction of the others.

But beyond that both of the current plays are written with a grand sense of theatricality. And though Mr. Mee has written several riveting monologues for the two plays on subjects like the differences between men and women, monogamy, sexual fetishism and the overlap of passion and furry, both are being thrillingly presented in productions that are far more articulate than the scripts alone can be. As scripts "Big Love" and "True Love" share so many elements — a winking, if more than merely passing, reliance on the Greeks; a sense that the mysteries of desire are maddeningly insoluble; the inclusion of popular songs; gooey thrown desserts; and even a few speeches that are close to word-for-word repetitions — that they might be considered two drafts of the smae play or perhaps more accurately two theatrical essays on the same theme.

"Big Love," which was first presented at the Humana Festival for New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., is Mr. Mee's cheeky updating of a work by Aeschylus, "The suppliant Women," in which 50 sisters promised in marriage to their 50 cousins make an angry pact to murder their husbands on their wedding night.

Mr. Mee sets the action at an Italian estate, rendered with exquisite suggestion by the designer Annie Smart with three panels of a clouded blue sky suspended behind a pink wrestling mat that serves as the stage floor. A luxurious bathtub sits on the mat, and above it hangs a chandelier; further toward the audience a beautifully articulated tree branch is suspended, and it casts delicate shadows on the sky panels. It is to this place that the promised brides in their wedding gowns have escaped across the sea from Greece and where they have been taken in by a wealthy family, whose members include Bella, the somber matriarch; Piero, one of her sons, a businessman; and Giuliano, Piero's gay nephew.

Three women — the sweet-tempered and open-minded Lydia (Carolyn Baeumler); the fervently, almost militantly girlish and princesslike Olympia (AimeÚ Guillot); and the antrily unforgiving Thyona (K.J. Sanchez) — represent the 50 brides. And three men — the stammering, love-struck Nikos (Bruce McKenzie); the insistently macho Constantine (Mark Zeisler); and Oed (J. Matthew Jenkins), a go-with-the-flow sort of guy — represent their 50 fiancÚs, who, shortly after the play begins arrive by helicopter (wearing flight suits over their tuxes) to reclaim them.

Mr. Mee's script is an amalgam of sometimes brilliant exegeses of sexual roles and prediections and sometimes cute or easy humor that too often employs surprise anachronisms. (Giuliano waxes peotic over his collection of Ken and Barbie dolls, for example.) But as staged by the director Les Waters and the choreographer Jean Isaacs, the inner turbulence in each character raised by love and lust is made so explicitly manifest as to be breathtaking. In addition to delivering shrewd performances that make each of the six bethrothed characters distinct, the actors are athletes. Each trio has its own gymnastic sequence in which they tumble over one another and hurl themselves bruisingly to the floor: hence the mat.

These are beautiful and exciting scenes, far more emotionally articulate than the shouting that accompanies them. When one of the men flings heavy circular saw blades into a panel of corkboard, it is stage violence with an astonishingly visceral effect. And in the climactic wedding night scene, the carnality and carnage take on a fantastic and macabre gorgeousness, crowned by an ensemble of beauties, their breasts heaving in the blood-stained white gowns, standing over a litter of half-stripped dead men. "Big Love" is a flawed play (among other things it has a rather trite conclusion), but the whole production, like a bridal bouquet that is flung out into the audience, is enormously crowd pleasing.

"True Love" applies the same mythological gravity and theatrical expansiveness to a Jerry Springer-like story about a love triangle involving a woman, her husband and his stepson.

The show, which includes a rock band and a red Dodge sedan on the state, and whose world (including a bedroom, a beauty parlor and an office) is set against the backdrop of a gas station and garage, begins almost like a Bruce Springsteen video. A lissome blone in a clinging blue gown is watching a shirtless boy glide back and forth on skates as the band plays a langorous, sexy rock tune.

Shortly thereafter a man being interviewed on the radio explains, "Fundamentally, what the Greeks thought was that love is not just a sentiment but is actually the physical principle of the universe itself, the very stuff that unifies the universe, you know, binds the universe together."

The monologues on the behavior-warping aspects of love are equally eloquent here — one of them, delivered by a masochistic and very unprincesslike hairdresser, is almost identical to Olympia's disquisition on the joys of dominance and submission, even though the characters are not. Here we have a secretary, a cross-dresser, and 11-year-old angel-faced sexpot, a couple of grease monkeys and a sadly beautiful businessman's wife.

And though it would be almost impossible to describe accurately the strange color and weave of the play's theatrical tapestry — among other things, a live chicken plays a significant role, an actor in mechanic's coveralls inveigles an audience member onstage for a sexual encounter involving a cream pie, and the set is nearly taken apart by actors in a rage fueled by acaophonous industrial music — it is a mesmerizing piece of work. Several performances — by Laura Esterman as the secretary, Dallas Roberts as a mechanic who llikes to arous himself by fixing jumper cables to his inner thighs, Laurie Williams as the sexually tormented wife and Roy Thinnes as her late-arriving husband — are noteworthy.

But most of all Daniel Fish has managed perhaps the most inventive directorial effort of the year; he uses the new theater, a raw space with a bar out front, seductively and efficiently, with a set (by Christine Jones) featuring metal shelves crammed with tires, exhaust pipes, headlights and containers of antifreeze that makes the whole enclosure feel like an actual working garage and makes the audience feel like its inhabitants. (The theater seats have the look of car seats removed from actual automobiles.)

And more important, Mr. Fish is so plugged in to Mr. Mee's notion that love is an urgent and upending undertow in any societal ocean that "True Love" becomes that fascinatingly rare collaboration in which a writer and director are pulling on separate ropes and yet tugging the show forward together. Amazingly, using the full vocabulary of theater, they've said something new about love.