Whatever Love Song may lack in plot development, it more than makes up for in poetry — which makes it the perfect antidote to the dripping-with-storyline entertainment that Hollywood and the Big Six publishing houses usually dole out to us from June through August. Funny, sweet, and sad, John Kolvenbach’s play delves into the life of a terribly lonely man and discovers oceans of emotional resonance, conveyed through beautiful, imagistic language.
Beane (Christian Self) is a man wholly withdrawn from the world, who lives in a depressing, bare apartment and works what we assume to be a mindless bureaucratic job (he works “for the city”). There are echoes of Melville’s Bartleby in Beane’s passive, disinterested approach to life; at one point, Beane even speaks Bartleby’s weak declaration, “I would prefer not to.” Beane’s sister Joan (Jenny Pringle) and her husband Harry (Michael Smallwood) are the kind of hurried and harried people who seem to talk all the time without really saying anything, and though they try to get Beane to come out of his shell, their attempts are half-hearted at best. One night, as Beane sits alone in his empty apartment, he is robbed by a strangely verbose and bombastic woman (Carly Ridgeway), who opens him up to life. What follows is an unusual love story, sometimes sweet, sometimes raw and anguished.
Much of the humor in the play comes from Joan and Harry’s innocent self-absorption and pitter-pattering verbal gymnastics. Smallwood, a PURE Core Member and City Paper contributor, seems utterly comfortable inhabiting the likeable Harry, while Pringle, who is a Theatre 99 company member, puts her comedic training to excellent use as the occasionally callous Joan.
Self, in his second role with PURE, manages to convey Beane’s quirkiness and unintentional humor while keeping visible just a hint of the agony right beneath the surface. His transformation from a lifeless wallflower to a joyous, hungry man in love is complete and moving — and all the more so because of Self’s skillful balancing of the subtleties of Beane’s character. Ridgeway, as Molly, is sultry and menacing; she revels in Molly’s overblown language and her simultaneously metaphysical and base worldview. When Molly and Beane tell each other the story of the night they met, which morphs into a tale of travel through a heat-stricken, desiccated world, they tap into something deeper than desperation, hotter than passion, and more complete than infatuation.
Director R.W. Smith creates a sharply divided set that shows just how distant Joan and Harry’s world is from Beane’s: on one side, an incredibly detailed upper middle class kitchen and den houses Joan and Harry, while on the other side of their wall we have Beane’s ugly, sad room, lit only by a bare bulb. As Joan and Beane begin to forge their connections, the two move within each other’s homes with more ease, and seem to move closer towards inhabiting the same world.
The only thing the play could be said to lack is, as mentioned earlier, fuller plot development. Though the characters themselves are wholly formed and three-dimensional, the story arc seems a tad compact for the kind of complex personal evolution that Love Song explores. Given that Joan and Beane, in particular, are undergoing truly monumental changes, there are moments that seem trite. One leaves feeling that the play hasn’t quite finished its own evolution into a complete, fully realized entity.
However, this does very little to take away from the play’s value, which rests in its unabashed belief in the beauty of language and its honest sounding of what it feels like to love—especially for the first time. We owe thanks to PURE for rescuing us from the flippant lightness of typical summertime fare with this excellent piece of theater.