at Angel Island
You would be hard-pressed to find four more talented actors than those in Cardiff Giant's original comedy, Love Me. Laura T. Fisher, Scott Hermes, Mark Ray Hollmann, and Greg Kotis (who together also wrote Love Me, along with director John Hildreth) turn a structurally weak play into a sparkling showcase for their abundant talent. Not only do they demonstrate great confidence, technical proficiency, and subtlety, but their commitment to their material is so strong that almost nothing in this two-and-a-half-hour production rings false. These actors believe in the ridiculous world they have created onstage.
At the same time, the actors delight in artifice. It's always clear that they are playing. Everything in this piece is exaggerated and stylized, and a good portion of the humor springs from an acknowledgment of how contrived the scenes are. Still the actors hold us spellbound, dedicating themselves to creating drama in a situation they continually admit is fake.
This is the formula for great comedy, and Love Me is exactly that. Every scene offers surprises, crackling dialogue, and examples of directorial ingenuity. And best of all, the characters are always tottering on the brink of sheer lunacy. As in a cartoon, the characters make huge emotional swings in a matter of moments, and yet always return to utter seriousness. Love Me puts its actors through their paces, and they remain smoothly in control of their own wickedly difficult material in almost every instance.
The play is set in an advertising agency run by barracuda extraordinaire Eve (Fisher). She is hell-bent on securing the Lawnmaster account, constantly driving her highly inept staff to devise a successful lawn-mower campaign. Myron (Hollmann), the art director, is an ineffectual, sincere milksop who never seems to generate anything that might be termed an idea. Matthew (Kotis), the copywriter, is a borderline-psychotic ex-monk who continually extols the virtues of cleanliness (in fact he washes his hands every hour on the hour). And Jake (Hermes), the sales representative, is a smooth-talking ex-con putting the make on everyone in the office and secretly trying to destroy the agency for no particular reason.
As the play proceeds, it becomes clear that these four people are destined to self-destruct. Jake and Eve have been tempestuous lovers for 20 years (they supported themselves in their early years together by selling small children, stealing them back, and then reselling them), yet Jake is aggressively seducing Myron. Matthew is completely intolerant of Myron, not because of his homosexuality but because of his "self-indulgence" as an artist. Matthew also becomes aware that Jake is selling company secrets to a rival agency, and when he self-righteously confronts Jake about it, Jake ends up smashing his face repeatedly into a desk.
The writing is intelligent, witty, and efficient throughout. These four actors work so well together that not a word is lost, not a movement is wasted, and hardly a punch line falls flat. What a treat to watch performers perfectly in sync. And all of these actors are marvelously generous, giving each other setup after setup, never claiming focus at the expense of anyone else onstage. All four share a style, a sensibility, making the play utterly consistent in tone and demeanor. They are not four comics running around together onstage but four comedic actors who understand the importance of maintaining the integrity of a dramatic scene.
It is unfortunate that the vehicle they've devised is not commensurate with their skill as performers. Love Me is something of a diluted farce that never quite kicks into gear. It's the kind of play that needs an engine to drive it, so that by the end of the second act the stage is ready to explode. Cardiff Giant seems to understand this impulse--the play gets more complicated and delightfully frustrating as it progresses, and the climactic scene nearly explodes--but they haven't taken this impulse far enough. The play suffers from too many digressions, most notably intermittent monologues: each character addresses the audience and confesses, recounts some personal anecdote, or both. All of these monologues are well written and expertly performed, but they do nothing for the play. Instead they stall further the show's already faltering momentum.
The elements are there for Love Me to be one terrific farce. Certainly Love Me has two essential ingredients: the stakes are remarkably high, and potentially explosive situations threaten constantly. The play simply needs to be streamlined. A good hour could be pared, allowing the plot to accelerate steadily to the final curtain rather than coast along its rather circuitous route.
Only one moment in the play is markedly unsuccessful, but it's tellingly flawed. Jake, Myron, and Matthew are at the movies, watching a ludicrous art film about color swatches called Ultrabeige. While Matthew is engrossed, Jake and Myron attempt to caress each other behind Matthew's back. Their passion builds until finally Matthew goes to the lobby to get some Goobers. Jake and Myron, finally alone and nearly dripping with lust, spring up on the back of their seats, turn to one another, take each other in their arms . . . and hug. Awkwardly. Suddenly both actors are completely uncomfortable, as they have not been at any other time in the show. Hands run noncommittally up and down forearms. Faces are turned away, so that something as natural as a kiss will not transpire. The actors keep moaning and groaning, but the scene has become a big lie. It's an enormous disappointment that Cardiff Giant, for all their boldness and strength, cannot allow something so simple as a kiss between two men--the wet, sloppy kiss that is demanded by the scene they have created. I am surprised that so ingenious a cast and director would so restrain themselves.
Love Me is wonderfully supported by a handsome, realistic, well-constructed set by Jeff Bruckerhoff. My only reservation is that the office features dumpy, secondhand furniture--but such are the pitfalls of low-budget theater. Hildreth's direction is impeccably clean, and his staging is smart throughout.
The Cardiff Giant folks, under the name Avant-Garfielde, perform comedy improv every Thursday night at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park. This gives me hope for the future of Love Me. As an improv group, they must continually revise and edit. My bet is that by the end of the run, Love Me will be a much stronger play.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.