Luv | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Sterling Theatre

at Talman Theatre

The most disturbing element in the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi is its high-speed depiction of mass activity, commuters streaming through a terminal or traffic surging and stopping spasmodically at intersections. The pitiless camera makes this heightened bustle absurd, as mindless and automatic as the swarming of maddened bees.

Murray Schisgal treats the cartoonish characters in his 1963 comedy, Luv, with a similar high-speed distortion. He fast forwards their emotional crises and changes of heart till they resemble so many careening billiard balls. Poignantly, despite everything, the billiard balls still think they're in charge. They never see the cue.

The daffy plot in this promising first offering by Sterling Theatre is a kind of emotional musical chairs. Love is no four-letter word in this play--it's luv, an abbreviated hybrid that resembles a biological binge more than anyone's idea of romance.

The action takes place on a strangely unfrequented New York bridge. Schisgal's first lost soul is Harry Berlin, a suicidal loner. He might have been a doctor or writer, but his life lost all meaning the day a dog came up and pissed on his leg. Harry, his elevator permanently stuck in the basement, has now lost control of everything--at times even speech, hearing, sight, and locomotion.

But he still knows which end of a bridge to jump off. As he starts to take the plunge, he's hailed by Milt Manville, a high school chum, now a self-made stockbroker and junk scavenger. Milt intends to teach Harry how to love life. Except it turns out that Milt is just as miserable: his marriage has disintegrated. (His cerebral wife, Ellen, later uses graphs to depict the decline of their sex life.) Milt desperately wants Ellen to fall in love elsewhere so he can marry his mistress, Linda. His solution: give deadbeat Harry a reason to live, and himself a chance to love, by getting Harry to romance Ellen.

From here on in, Luv's characters begin to twist quickly in the wind. Ellen falls into an improbable marriage with the elaborately messed-up Harry. In a mere matter of months the union produces so many sitcom complications that Ellen yearns for her previous yoke. Milt and Linda are equally mismatched. After various botched suicide and homicide attempts and three dives into the river, the play ends as it began, with poor Harry the odd man out.

Luv is a comic concoction buoyed by helium; the smallest injection of realism could blow it up. No such worry with Mitzi R. McKay's frenetic staging. McKay knows better than to try to flesh out Schisgal's demented Feifferlike creations; her actors flatten themselves to two dimensions as naturally as if they've come straight from Toon Town. (Or had never left vaudeville--Schisgal throws in two sidesplitting scenes in which the characters one-up each other with increasingly heartrending tales of their deprived childhoods.)

Rick Reardon plays Milt, jerking himself about like a horny puppet and delivering his lines with a stand-up's punch. Reardon keeps us from losing sympathy with his character by giving him a childlike monomania that makes the guy's selfishness seem mere simplemindedness. He treats Milt's wrenching mood changes as if each obsession suddenly erased every earlier loyalty. Funny to watch, yes, but it would be scary to live this way.

With the kind of deadpan intensity Barbara Harris showed in her Second City prime, Kirsten Sahs shows us a bad-luck Ellen, a dingbat who never wavers in her single-minded commitment to suffering. The script forces Sahs to go through some fairly sexist shenanigans, but knowing hesitation would be fatal, she pulls off even the crazed Doris Day domesticity with a trouper's aplomb.

Stephen J. Rose as Harry combines the rubber-faced ingenuity of a silent-screen comic with the pathos of an inspired mime. Bouncing around in clothes that nearly swallow him up, his face dissolving in hope or luminous with dumb love, Rose's Harry is one of the walking wounded, a man who cringes, just waiting for the next blow. It's as if Harry has seen himself Koyaanisqatsi-style and resolved to stay still and make no more undignified moves. But then comes "luv," and it's back to the swarm.

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