By Stanford Friedman
New York audiences were introduced to playwright Mike Bartlett last year, when his excellent King Charles III came to Broadway to make scathing fun of Britain’s royal family. Now, an earlier play, his 2011 Love Love Love has crossed the pond. It, too, is concerned with family matters, though the focus this time is on the upper middle class. If not as ambitious as his later work, it is equally brutal. In this harsh comedy, Love Love Love is code for Lust Anger Regret.
The action takes place over three acts and 44 years. Act I, set in 1967, finds brothers Henry (Alex Hurt) and Kenneth (Richard Armitage) in Henry’s squalid London flat, deep in sibling rivalry. Ken, in a dark red robe, is feeling groovy. Henry is stressed after a day of work, and when we learn that his girlfriend, Sandra (Amy Ryan), is coming over, we can understand why he wants to get Ken out of the picture. The inevitable, of course, occurs. Sandra takes an immediate, pot-fueled, liking to Ken, and Henry fades into the background – his shirt even matches the color of the walls. “Your face looks flat,” Sandra tells him, shortly before he vanishes all together.
Television has taught us that the couple who start out wild will eventually settle down and become responsible, caring adults. Act II turns that reasoning on its head. Fast forwarding to 1990, Ken and Sandra have indeed married and taken up residence in an attractive suburban house. But, we are firmly in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf territory here, as we witness a drunken evening at home. Instead of terrorizing a clueless colleague and his timid wife as George and Martha did, Ken and Sandra set their sights on their own clueless teenage son, Jamie (Ben Rosenfield), and timid daughter, Rose (Zoe Kazan). Bartlett chooses not just any night, but probably the worst night of their collective lives; the family pulling further apart with every glass of vino.
Television also instructs us that the children of dysfunctional parents will somehow overcome their upbringing. Act III, set in 2011, subverts that premise. Jamie and Rose are all grown up, but deeply damaged in their own separate ways, with the now aged Ken and Sandra willing to let it ride. There are pangs of remorse, but these parents are ultimately more concerned about their own twisted happiness.
The entire ensemble turns in strong performances. Actors in time-lapse comedies, they all grow up so fast. We see too little of Mr. Hurt as the absent Henry. He was a fine loser, but serves the play only as a catalyst to spark the other characters into action. Mr. Armitage finds Ken’s inner child and nurtures him into a charming, successful business man who is also a complete failure. The always great Amy Ryan makes Sandra a hot mess, sheathed in an icy exterior. Teenage Rose is a disaster waiting to happen and when we encounter her at age 37, Ms. Kazan finds just the right mix of pathos and obnoxiousness. Jamie is the evening’s only wholly sympathetic character and Mr. Rosenfield gives a touching performance. His 14-year-old self, set free with wine and cigarettes, is as priceless as his adult personality is worrisome.
The leaps in time and setting are visually delightful, thanks to the smart period costuming of Susan Hilferty and Derek McLane’s ever upwardly-mobile scenic design. The compromise, however, is that the transformations require a 10 minute intermission between each short act. This effectively kills any pacing that director Michael Mayer was hoping to establish. The experience is more like binge watching three episodes of a BBC comedy, than viewing a cohesive piece of theater. On the night I was there, an older couple in front of me seemed to take the play to heart during these timeouts. He played solitaire on his phone, she paged through her program.
Love, Love, Love – By Mike Bartlett; directed by Michael Mayer.
WITH: Richard Armitage (Kenneth), Alex Hurt (Henry), Zoe Kazan (Rose), Ben Rosenfield (Jamie) and Amy Ryan (Sandra).
Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Lighting by David Lander, Costumes by Susan Hilferty, Sound by Kai Harada; Davin De Santis, production stage manager. The Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Daryl Roth Productions at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, 212.719.1300, http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Love-Love-Love.aspx. Through December 18. Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes.