Rude Guerilla has scored a major coup in gaining the rights to present the Southern California premiere of Love Song, John Kolvenbach’s hilarious, captivating, quirky, one-of-a-kind romantic comedy (with a twist). Following its 2006 world premiere at Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf and a London premiere (studded with American TV stars) later the same year, Love Song has gone on to regional and international acclaim. Why major L.A. theaters let this remarkable gem of a play slip them by is anyone’s guess, but their loss is Orange County’s gain—and Angelinos are hereby advised to take advantage of low gas prices by heading on down to Santa Ana to see what the rest of the world has been gushing about.

Love Song begins wordlessly. In a short, striking opening scene, a young toll booth employee named Beane sits alone in his dimly-lit, dingy one-room apartment where (literally in some other productions and figuratively in Rude Guerrilla’s excellent but bare-bones one), “the walls and ceiling converge on Beane’s head.”

Cut to an upscale yuppie loft where Beane’s hard-nosed, high-strung businesswoman sister Joan is explaining to her slightly incredulous husband Harry her reasons for firing the “incompetent” intern who had the poor sense to burst into tears after a misfiling incident. And if the intern’s crying jag was not already reason enough to give her the ax, there’s also the matter of her inability to staple! Though it’s clear that Joan and Harry’s marriage is not yet on the rocks, one senses that Joan’s stressful work life “surrounded by dipsticks” has put a damper on whatever romantic ardor was once there.

Following a visit to Joan and Harry’s apartment (and a comically disastrous attempt at responding to one of those women’s magazine’s psychological questionnaires), Beane returns to his nearly unfurnished flat to find that he is being visited by an attractive young female burglar. The thief, Molly, is seriously pissed off at Beane and has stuck around to tell him exactly why.

What the hell kind of person lives in an apartment with only a cup and a spoon to eat with (and no other plates or utensils for a burglar worth her salt to steal)?  Who the hell is this man who has only one shirt and one pair of pants in his closet (which Molly is now wearing, making her and the identically dressed Beane a matching set)? Giving up on her efforts to get a straight answer to such simple questions, Molly leaves with her slim pickings, only to return a day or two later to complain to Beane that all she could get from selling his belongings was a measly six dollars. Anger soon turns to lust, however, and the couple head passionately towards Beane’s offstage bed.

And thus, having met his soul mate, Beane finds his life transformed.

Invited out to lunch by Joan, the previously glum and taciturn Beane waxes poetic about the scrumptious turkey sandwich he is served—and about the joys of sex, sunlight, and the touch of another human being.

Soon, Joan and Harry have been bitten by Beane’s love bug and are calling in sick (though not particularly believably) in order to spend the day smoking imaginary cigarettes and making not-so-imaginary, passionate love.

Then, about three quarters of the way through, Kolvenbach’s magically fresh take on the transformative power of love (and sex) takes a turn every bit as surprising as the “don’t you dare give it away” third act plot twists of The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense, which elevates Love Song to an entirely new level of originality and power.

Under Jenni Dillon’s assured direction, Rude Guerrilla’s young cast do mostly splendid work, headed by the pitch-perfect, totally endearing performance of Alex Walters (a young Philip Seymour Hoffman) as Beane. We ache for the young schlump’s absolute incompetence at social interaction, yet cannot help but laugh at his frustrating inability to grasp even the first question of Harry’s psychological quiz.  Walters conveys to perfection Beane’s joyous discovery of the romantic and sensual pleasures of life, so much so that our hearts bleed for him when (for reasons not to be revealed here), he retreats back into his protective shell.  

Though Melita Sagar and Joe Hernandez are a decade or so young for their roles as Joan and Harry, both give cracklingly good performances.  Sagar is bitingly funny in her initial scenes as Joan, the “business barracuda,” and equally fine as Joan reveals her tender side opposite her brother, and as the still lusty wife just waiting for the right spark to reignite the passion she feels for Harry. As Harry, Hernandez proves a fine comic foil to both Walters and Sagar, and his mounting frustration at Beane’s off-the-wall responses to the women’s magazine questionnaire is a pleasure to watch. Hernandez and Sagar share great romantic/sexual chemistry in their scenes together.  As no-nonsense urban commando Molly, Jami McCoy is good a playing tough, though her performance would benefit from a few extra shadings. Hernandez doubles winningly as a not overly stereotypical gay waiter.

There are a couple of extended riffs (particularly one between Beane and Molly) which go on too long, but otherwise Kolvenbach’s 90-minute play zooms by, charms, and engrosses. The playwright’s fresh look at the power of love to transform even the bleakest life definitely makes him “one to watch” and the upcoming South Coast Rep. world premiere of his latest, Goldfish, one to look forward to.

Previous productions of Love Song have apparently featured complex set designs with Beane’s apartment morphing into Joan and Harry’s loft and back again. Fortunately, Rude Guerrilla’s wide stage (and Sarah Bradshaw’s simple but fine scenic design) allows both apartments to be before us simultaneously, with Katy Streeter’s excellent lighting signaling the gratifyingly fast scene changes. (In a fortuitous bit of luck, the theater’s exit door, which doubles as Beane’s apartment door, squeaks and closes in perfect timing to the play’s action.) 

Rude Guerrilla’s production of Love Song proves a delightful change of pace from their frequently dramatic, edgy programming, and if this 2009 opener is any indication, the year is off to an auspicious start indeed.

Rude Guerilla Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
January 2, 2009

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