When Rob Mersola’s Backseats & Bathroom Stalls debuted in 2008, the pansexual sex farce had me laughing out loud through its eighty-five minutes of outrageous surprises. With an eleventh hour “I didn’t see that one coming” twist I called “the best since The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense,” the entire package ended up winning four Scenies—for Best Production Comedy (Small Theater), Best Direction (Comedy), Best Ensemble (Comedy), and Best Performance By A Featured Actress (Comedy). Popular demand brought the production back for a second run at the tiny Lyric Hyperion Theatre, after which, as most shows do, it vanished into nostalgic memory, but not before catching the attention of a group of producers who saw its potential for even greater success.

Now, Backseats & Bathroom Stalls is back with a considerably easier to remember title—Love Sucks—cleverly tweaked and updated in a lavishly redesigned production at West Hollywood’s prestigious Coast Playhouse. With (hallelujah!) the entire, stellar cast returning for more shenanigans, Love Sucks is every bit as uproariously funny as it was previously, and perhaps even more so in its latest incarnation.

Backseats & Bathroom Stalls, began quite appropriately, in a backseat and (simultaneously) in a bathroom stall … with roommates Josie and Calvin getting it off in separate parts of New York’s Lower East Side, she with a dude named Harlan in the backseat of a car and he with a guy named Charlie in a conveniently located bathroom stall.

Love Sucks savvily eases audiences into its characters’ sexual hijinks with an introductory scene of the two roommates getting ready for their respective dates, but from then on, it’s pretty much “don’t argue with success,” as Love Sucks takes us first to the abovementioned backseat and bathroom stall, then zooms off in a bunch of unpredictable directions, adding two more characters to the mix—a half-Italian, half-gypsy lothario named Giuseppi and a fiancée named Elaine.

Josie (Sadie Alexandru) is a magnet for bad men, still reeling from the aftermath of losing her fiancée to her erstwhile best friend (though Josie can hardly complain given that she and her ex-BFF had managed to sleep with each and every one of each other’s boyfriends).

Calvin (Joshua Bitton) is such a hopelessly romantic young gay man that he automatically assumes a blowjob in a bathroom stall to be the first step towards happily-ever-after with the man of his dreams.

Harlan (Michael Alperin) is a film student more interested in getting his rocks off than falling in love, a dude soon to make some surprising discoveries about just who he’s willing and even eager to have service his much-vaunted “member.”

Charlie (Daniel Ponickly) looks like a stockbroker/TV soap star, is in actual fact a waiter, claims to be cheating on his boyfriend, is in actual fact cheating on his fiancée, claims to be straight, and may in actual fact not be as straight as he claims.

Giuseppi (Anil Kumar) is Italian on his father’s side, gypsy on his mother’s, 100% heterosexual, able to read palms, and born with a special talent in sniffing out liars.

Elaine (Jeni Verdon) is the personification of bad luck with men, the latter trait be-cumming clear when she discovers her fiancé with a creamy white stain on his necktie which he claims is pizza.

Love Sucks is built on a series of uproarious, mostly two-person scenes which allow each character to interact at least once with every other character until all six come together in the same place at the same time to hysterical effect. Because three of the four male characters are (in no particular order) gay, bi-claiming-to-be-straight-but-perhaps-neither, and questioning, the production is an obvious draw to the gay theater crowd. At the same time, unlike most so-called “gay comedies,” Love Sucks is one that open-minded straight audiences are eating up just as much as their same-sex-minded counterparts.

Playwright Mersola’s direction is every bit as crackerjack as his writing, scenes moving along lickety-split, with freshly added references to AT&T and Facebook earning new laughs and bringing the script (originally written a decade or so) firmly into the 2010s.

Love Sucks continues to feature one of the most all-around outstanding comedy ensembles you’re likely ever to see on one of our local stages.

Scenie-winner Verdon once again lucks out with the most interesting, complex, and probably best-written character, someone who seems at first to be nothing but an uptight young woman fixated on one thing and one thing alone—her upcoming nuptials. Then, as the onion skins are peeled away (as is Verdon’s blouse in one particularly delicious scene), the gifted actress gets to be funny, sexy, and touching, cry real tears and vent real anger. It’s a joy of a performance to watch.

The rest of the ensemble shines brightly as well. Bitton continues to play gay about as convincingly (and uncondescendingly) as any straight actor I’ve seen. His Calvin is sweet, innocent, and utterly adorable. Alexandru is as before a marvelous comedienne, making the multi-quirked, low-self-esteemed Josie a joy to watch, never more so than in her uproarious verbal catfight with Verdon. Alperin remains so good and so cute and so winning as the perpetually horny undergrad Harlan that one is willing and even eager to excuse his macho pride in having a “really big” one. Tall, handsome Ponickly is still the perfect choice to play (and absolutely terrific as) a stockbroker who claims to be a waiter but looks like a soap star. (His “what is that stain on your tie” scene with Verdon is an utter riot.) Finally, there’s Broadway’s Anil Kumar, once again perfection as half-gypsy all-male Giuseppi, who’ll likely do or say anything to get a woman in the sack (or backseat or bathroom stall), the actor scoring some of the evening’s biggest laughs with a single (and perfectly timed) interjection, “Liar!”

About the original production, I wrote in my review, “Uncredited design components are all just fine, the play needing nothing more than its minimalist set (a front seat and a bathroom stall, both black against black walls).” Design components are no longer either uncredited or minimalist, the show now sporting a brand new classier look. Burris Jackes’ set manages to compact a cocktail lounge, a grungy apartment, a car’s front and back seats, a pair of bathroom stalls, a gypsy’s apartment, and a restaurant onto the Coast stage, the apartment and bar decorated with considerable attention to detail. Kathi O’Donohue’s as-always outstanding lighting design sets moods and focuses attention. Lorena Gomez’s costumes are a perfect match for each character, from Josie’s cute/slutty mini-dresses to Charlie’s business garb to Calvin’s skintight gayshirts.

Love Sucks is a co-production of East 4th Street Productions and Springtime 4 productions and is presented by The World Famous Improvisation and Mario Cantone. Jo Anne Astrow, Ronni Lynn Hart, Dave Hart, and Mark Lonow are producers. Laura Frost is stage manager

Love Sucks’ Lower East Side setting and East Coast characters makes the play ripe for an L.A.-to-New York transfer. My guess is that a home turf audience would eat it up every bit as ravenously as those who’ve made it a West Coast comedy hit.

Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
March 20, 2011

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