Raskolnikov on his worst day looks like a Wall Street commodities broker compared to Beane, the preternaturally depressed and nearly autistic protagonist of John Kolvenbach's sweet and strange romantic comedy, Love Song, now in a world premiere at Steppenwolf. Dressed in filthy oversize work trousers and a flannel shirt, sitting on a tattered chair and attempting to read by a lamp that seems to thwart him by becoming dimmer and dimmer and finally going out, Beane has problems--and Ian Barford's hangdog expression as Beane's world sinks (literally, into the depths of the Steppenwolf stage) contains a world of hurt.
His sister Joan, on the other hand, would be fine if the idiots of the world could just step up to the plate and do their jobs. Molly Regan, pencil thin and regal in pinstripes, sallies about the well-appointed loft (cunningly designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge) Joan shares with husband Harry (Francis Guinan), explaining why she had to fire yet another intern for gross incompetence. Harry is both bemused and a little horrified. "You oppose me for fun, Harry," she accuses him. "That's called talking," he retorts. Neither seems to notice when Beane shows up for dinner, and when they do he becomes the rope in a verbal game of tug-of-war as Harry attempts to administer a magazine personality test to his brother-in-law. Asked which gift he'd like to receive in a box from a lover--a puppy, a bird, a bunny, or a baby--Beane chooses the bird, reasoning that since it's in a closed box whatever it is will be dead when he opens it, and he'd rather not kill a baby, even an imaginary one.
But when Beane falls for Molly (Mariann Mayberry), the wiry and nearly feral woman who invades his room one night, the scales tip and his imagination becomes a source of joy rather than terror. Love turns him giddy, and the guy who could barely bring himself to eat his meals out of a tin cup is rhapsodizing to Joan about the bread in a restaurant. "It's flour and yeast and fucking fairy dust!" he exclaims. Slowly, as Beane's passion for Molly and the simple pleasures of life grows, Harry and Joan begin to shake off the shackles of corporate responsibility and rediscover their yearning for each other. A comic highlight comes when the two decide to play hooky for the sake of nooky. Joan has never faked a sick day in her life, and she becomes hopelessly entangled in a ridiculous lie that begins with a head cold and ends with some bizarre form of food poisoning or plague.
Kolvenbach's play has echoes of Jules Feiffer's Little Murders, about a painfully shy man set free for a time by an outspoken woman, but it lacks the nihilistic conclusion of that play. Mayberry's Molly is a swaggering and possibly mad force of nature--she comes on like Lili Taylor's Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol, right down to the workman's cap covering her short and badly dyed black hair. Sneering at those who try to keep their lives perfectly clean, sterile, and minimalist, she proclaims herself a "liberator" who tears open the "closets of sentiment" where people hide their old yearbooks, scented love letters, and stuffed animals.
It's nice to see Steppenwolf poking around in those closets, after the aren't-upper-middle-class-liberals-hypocritical-swine revelations of last season's The Pain and the Itch and the downbeat grit of Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter. Austin Pendleton is the perfect director for the task. His hand here is assured enough to make some of Kolvenbach's more twee flights of verbal fancy still feel muscular and grounded, as in a long second-act pas de deux where Beane and Molly fantasize about turning into the same person--though in a way accompanied by some corporeal grotesqueness.
This isn't a deeply revelatory play by any means, and the central twist will not come as a total surprise to many viewers. But its richness lies in its simplicity and its heart, and in the four lively, funny, soulful, silly, and brave performances. Near the end, Regan and Barford sit together in quiet rapport, smoking imaginary cigarettes. One can almost see the smoke whirling above their heads, and yet of course they're not doing anything that could really damage them. The moment serves as its own commentary on Kolvenbach's defiantly sentimental but intelligent defense of the vital role of imagination (or even delusion) in keeping the human heart alive.
When: Through 6/4: see chicagoreader.com for complete schedule. Through 5/9: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.