But what about love?” The recurring question interrupts each character’s litany of woes, and each responds with an echo of the word, with or without a question mark, and the comedy—Murray Schisgall’s Luv—starts up again.
Starts up times three, as the Actors Ensemble production features three separate versions—straight, gay and lesbian—changing place every night, on revolving Thursday-through-Saturday schedules.
This triptych of different preferences—a love triangle, squared, becoming a nine-sided trapezoid—came about when director Alan Barkan suggested the company produce a play he’d seen in Long Island in the 1960s, then reflected on how to do it for here and now, coming up with a veritable hall of mirrors of manners and proclivities.
“Part of it is my inability to accept simplicity,” Barkan said. “I don’t know what originated the inspiration for it being seen through the eyes of three different orientations, except for my feeling that we all drink from the same well, that it’s all what we do with it ... It’s all about pain and love; the only thing that changes is our emotional response to it.”
Whether it was Proposition 8 in the air, or realizing that Schisgall had also penned the screenplay for the cross-dressing classic Tootsie, Barkan advanced the controversy over same-sex marriage as contemporary rationale for the three versions when applying for rights to produce. And when Dramatists Play Service initially turned down the request, Barkan appealed to Schisgall.
“I was impressed that Dramatists forwarded our e-mail correspondence to Mr. Schisgall’s agent, who then contacted me with a few plain questions from him,” Barkan recalled. “I was kind of surprised, really. He didn’t probe too much as to approach. Then I heard he granted us permission.”
It’s best to see all, or at least more than one. The details become significant by comparison. None of the three casts witnessed or were told how the others were performing it. It’s the same play, but “it’s either three straight, gay or lesbian people in a world that’s straight, gay or lesbian—that’s the norm of their particular world as we represent it, their window on it—displaying highly eccentric, but nonetheless real, actions and desires.”
The gay version is the only one this critic was able to catch in performance, though Alan Barkan kindly invited me to rehearsals of the others; like birdwatchers, reviewers must catch such variegated flocks however they land.
It is a stellar comedy. Stanley Spenger has never been better (certainly never funnier) than as Milt, the self-made, scheming entrepreneur, who saves his old schoolbuddy Harry (a loopy, physically comic Harold Pierce, who’s also done well by Actors Ensemble in recent shows) from jumping off the bridge, in order to introduce him to Milt’s spouse Elliot (an elegant, if smouldering Federico Edwards), hoping the two will hit it off, so Milt can hook up with his lover, the ever-unseen Leonard.
Act One ends with Milt’s scheme a raving success after some awkward bumps along the way, a lot of competitive poormouthing reminiscence and a spreadsheet-supported lecture on the infrequency of connubial bliss. The humor is both symmetrical and syncopated.
The second act is the charm, fraught with boasting one-upsmanship, with renegs, double-reverses, the specter of Gay Divorce—a boomerang across the Outback of love-at-first-sight (however engineered) and its after-effects. The trio is such an ensemble, they could pass for an old-time, lifelong vaudeville act: Spenger, Edwards & Pierce.
It is the charm for the other versions, too, both as discrete theatrical phenomena, and as what links the local colors (and flavor) of each preference in a unifying chain—or spectrum of a rainbow.
Each truly has its own slant. The straight version is really straight, in every sense. Benjamin Grubb as Milt is that guy from back in school who knows how to collect people and arrange them in a bouquet he graciously accepts—then tosses away. Eric Carlson realizes distracted, melancholic, whimsical Harry, abetted by forlorn, seductive Danielle Martino as Ellen, only searching—and backtracking—to find that elusive monosyllable, the homophone of which entitles the play.
In the lesbian Luv, Catherine Lerza plays ambitious, micromanaging Mel, Stacy Sanders the quizzically nutty Harriet (with a great, outlandish strut in Act Two), and Crystal Bush plays a plaintive Ellen, with honeyed voice like an ingenue-turned-torch singer.
(In fact, each incarnation of Ellen/Elliot is distinguished by a teasing voice, perfect for the frustrated nester the other two hover around.)
And lest the likewise triply-challenged designers be forgot, Norman de Veyra (set), Jeremy Cole (lights), and ever-creative costumer Helen Slomowitz put together the look of these shows. Producer Jennifer Rice presided.
Given a once-over, Luv might look like an offbeat collection of burlesque gags and routines refashioned to reflect ’60s “existentialism” (or was it a lower-case “situationalism”?), half Henny Youngman, half Woody Allen: “Take my wife ... please!” become a kind of maladroit sexual swinging.
But Alan Barkan stated that he struggled “not to play up the slapsticky” element, but to instead take the characters as “real people, just wacky ... My thing with theater is that it’s about people real enough so you like them. Will we allow a sense of other possibilities, for them to pop up out of us? We all have our own ridiculous, ludicrous reactions. What came out of each cast was the outgrowth of how they interacted with each other, what the characters wanted from each other—what was germane to each orientation. It breathes new life into the play, which is so timely to the questions each version invokes, which are sweeping the nation. So timely, especially to the Bay Area.”
A comedy by Murray Schisgall, presented by Actors Ensemble in straight, gay and lesbian versions, rotating nightly.
8 p. m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through May 23 at Live Oak Theater,
1301 Shattuck Ave. $12.