This out-and-out hilarious blend of the absurd, the romantic, and the slapstick opens with a chance late night meeting between old school chums Harry Berlin (Michael Goldstrom) and Milt Manville (Rob Roy Cesar), reunited on a big city bridge for the first time in fifteen years. An overjoyed Milt can’t wait to update Harry on his life, which includes a wife, a home in the suburbs, a twenty-two carat gold watch, a designer suit, silk underwear, the works. As for his college friend’s sorry state of affairs, the crummily dressed Harry gives him the bad news. “It couldn’t be worse. I’m at the end of the line. Everything’s falling apart.” The worst of the worst had to be when a fox terrier peed all over the poor schlump’s gabardine pants, then turned right around and walked off. That’s why tonight, Harry confesses, “I was going to end it all, make one last stupid gesture of disgust and … that would be it.”
Fortunately or unfortunately as the case might be, Milt’s appearance puts a stop to Harry’s suicide attempt, at least for the time being. What he isn’t able to remedy are the physical manifestations of his friend’s despair. Suddenly, without warning, Harry’s body becomes paralyzed, literally stiff as a board. Then, a moment later he loses the power of sight. (“Milt … Milt … Where are you? Are you still here Milt?”) His sight has only just returned when it is replaced by loss of hearing. (“Speak slowly and I’ll try to read your lips.”) Could it get any worse? It could.
Before long Harry and Milt are comparing notes on their miserable childhoods.
MILT: I didn’t start school until I was eight years old because I didn’t have a pair of shoes to wear. Lucky for me the kid downstairs was hit by an ice cream truck and I got his shoes. Even then they were so tight I couldn’t walk. I was put in a special class for disabled children.
HARRY: You think that was bad? My grandparents used to lock me out of the house. They couldn’t stand the sight of me because I reminded them of my father. I remember one day I came home from school during a blinding snowstorm and the door was locked. I knocked and yelled and beat my poor little frozen fists on the door. They laughed! Picture that for yourself. A tall skinny kid standing out there in the snowstorm, wearing nothing but a thin torn jacket and a paper bag for a hat, knocking and yelling, “Let me in. Please let me in.”
To which Milt responds, “Paradise.”
The above is only a taste of Murray Schisgal’s brand of humor, wild and crazy and outrageously funny, particularly as performed by Goldstom, Cesar, and Betsy Zajko in the role of Milt’s wife Ellen, who Milt believes would prove the perfect solution to both his and Harry’s woes. It turns out that Milt has fallen in love with a certain Linda, with “her eyes, her mouth, her young virgin voluptuousness,” and if Harry and Ellen can simply fall in love at first sight, then a happy ending will be had by all four.
And there you have a taste of first fifteen minutes or so of Luv’s uproarious unpredictability, oodles of absurdity (one character falls off the bridge only to return in an ill-fitting sailor suit, having been rescued by a passing barge, given the clothes, a cup of coffee and a donut), and more physical comedy than you’re likely to have seen in eons. (Hint: This is not the only time someone will fall off the bridge.)
If Luv hasn’t been staged locally in recent memory, it’s doubtless because it requires the kind of comedic brilliance that its original stars (Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson) brought to Broadway—and how many actors are up to that task?
Goldstrom, Cesar, and Zajko certainly are, the trio giving some of the most dazzlingly funny performances you’re likely to see any time in the foreseeable future, in roles which must leave the three performers as drained as any actor who’s just spent a few hours playing Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois.
It certainly helps that Luv is directed by Howard Teichman, whose comic flair made Theatre 40’s Modern Orthodox and the West Coast Jewish Theatre’s Sarah, Sarah two of the funniest shows of the past several years. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Luv is a co-production of the two companies at Theatre 40’s home base, the Ruben Cordova Theatre at Beverly Hills High School.)
Goldstrom won a Scenie for his tour de force comedy performance in 2007’s Modern Orthodox and nearly four years later he is equally brilliant as the saddest sack ever to attempt to hang himself from a lamppost by a length of rope he’s kept tied around his waist just in case. Exhibiting a sad sack slouch, razor sharp comic timing, and one hilarious physical feat after another, Goldstrom deserves every one of the countless laughs he inspires.
Speaking of inspiration, casting tall, lanky Cesar (who has a good deal of another Caesar, namely Sid, in him) was a stroke of genius, the talented actor making for a couldn’t-be-funnier foil for the less vertically endowed Goldstrom in a role which demands nearly as much physicality from the supposed “straight man” of the pair.
Finally, there’s the splendid Zajko, whose performance recalls both Broadway original Jackson and the film adaptation’s Elaine May, an actress who manages to be both leading lady and topflight comedienne, whether demonstrating on a handy graph just how dismal Ellen’s sex life with Milt has become or in romantic clinches with whoever of the two is Ellen’s man of the moment.
Scenic designer Jeff G. Rack fills the Ruben Cordova stage with a deliciously dismal Brooklyn Bridge-like bridge. Ellen Monocroussos’ lighting is tiptop as are Bill Froggatt’s myriad props and Michelle Young’s vintage costumes, including Harry’s rags and Milt’s sailor duds. (The program says Time: Present, but clearly we are back in the ‘60s.) Finally, there’s Froggatt’s terrific sound design, whose seagull calls and perfectly timed water splashes earn their own laughs. Luv is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Kelly Jean Friedlinghaus is stage manager.
With two topnotch theater companies joining forces for the first time, it’s no wonder Luv concludes Theatre 40s 2010-2011 season on its highest note. I didn’t stop laughing from start to finish, and my guess is that audiences will be following my lead night after night throughout Luv’s six-week run.
Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.
June 2, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger