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Love Sucks/Hokey Pokey

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LOVE SUCKS

at Playwrights' Center

HOKEY POKEY

at Playwrights' Center

The neoromanticism of the 1960s has given way to increasing cynicism about the mysterious ways in which love seems to move, an antiromantic attitude reflected in David Wesley Graham's two short plays at the Playwrights' Center. But their collective title, "Love Sucks," belies their prodigious humor and compassion.

The first, Maybe Love, opens with a quintessentially romantic situation: Ben and Stormy, the best friend of Ben's wife Sheila, have been indulging in an orgy for three straight days in a borrowed apartment. Despite fatigue and a diet of take-out food, Ben wants to continue the sybaritic idyll. "Sheila didn't understand me," he says, justifying his infidelity. "This is different. This is love." Stormy, however, is having second thoughts. She points out that she's neglected the job and housing search that brought her into Ben and Sheila's lives, wrecked a lifelong friendship, and alienated the rest of their mutual friends. Furthermore, Ben's stubborn wish for free and unconditional love is beginning to sound suspiciously like a child's egocentric demands. Then the pizza they've ordered is delivered by a mysterious, slightly menacing clown who looks oddly familiar.

Graham's parable delves into the realm of science fiction for its explanation of the mischievous miracle by which Ben's wish is granted after the clown leaves. But director Tammy Berlin keeps the potential battiness of the script in check, maintaining a universe recognizable enough to be taken seriously while cartoonish enough to soften our horror at the adulterers' Dionysian fate. Jim Johnson and Sheila Hodges play Ben and Stormy with just the right amount of shallow hedonism, and Rob Kimmel makes an enigmatic but never larger than life instrument of justice--no easy task when clad in a rubber nose and swim-fin shoes.

Keeping the narrative firmly grounded in the plausible and familiar is the key to the success of A Bouquet of Elbows, a 30-minute monologue delivered with abundant charm and enthusiasm by Gary Simmers, playing the young, blue-collar, all-American Karl. The ostensible subject of this barroom raconteur's tale is the love affair he had with a would-be actress named Yvette who wore only black, covered her freckles with mortuary-strength makeup, and played Sondheim's Sweeney Todd while making love. Karl has a tendency to get sidetracked, so his story also includes details about his lawyer buddy, his Vietnam veteran brother, his childhood nightmares of Liberace, Polish names with too many consonants, avant-garde (which he pronounces "Avon garden") theater, and the measure of masculinity. Karl is no ordinary bellyacher blowing beer and suds--he even apologizes when his story requires him to use vulgar language. Truly wishing nobody harm, he's struggling to do the right thing in the face of his own imperfections and those of the world around him. His lawyer buddy insists, "It's always somebody's fault." But by the time Karl's story gets scary and we discover the reason for his desperate digressions, we don't want to assign blame; we only feel a profound pity.

Both of these one-acts are a bit ragged around the edges, but Graham is a refreshingly articulate and mature playwright.

The decorations look like they're from a high school prom, the music is syrupy enough to pour over the cake, the minister has been drinking, and the guests are beginning to grow a trifle grim. Yes, it's the wedding reception from hell, and the motley band of former classmates seated at a table near the bar are doomed to repeat their worst experiences without end, as old rivalries resurface with hilarious and painful results.

The fun of Dan Bade's Hokey Pokey, which takes its title from the venerable ice-breaker dance of the 1950s, is less in the design than in the execution. Director Fred Kuhr has assembled an agile and energetic cast who zip through the cartoon-swift dialogue and complex physical gags (including a fraternity handshake elaborate enough to become an Olympic event) with a split-second precision that never degenerates into the sloppy shrillness of improv comedy. The actors never stoop to ridiculing the two-dimensional personalities they play, but speak squarely and candidly from each character's callow, stereotypical truth. The teamwork in the scene in which loudmouthed Billy Bob (played with puppyish innocence by Scott Lane), wimpish Tony (a study in me-tooism by Gregory Tatro), and blase Bradley (played with savoir faire by Tracy S. Adams) discover that one of them is gay should be awarded some sort of David Mamet prize.

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