At the heart of comedy is emotional pain. Pain raised to a heightened level, to the point where all you can do is laugh. And laugh you will at the brilliant revival of Murray Schisgal’s “LUV,” directed by Lonny Price, playing at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall through July 1.
“LUV” is an absurdist comedy written in the early 1960s. Set on one of New York City’s East River bridges, it opens with a down-and-out Harry Berlin (Kahan James) preparing to end his life by leaping into the river below. Along comes an old school chum from Polyarts U., Milt Manville (Robert Stanton), who stops and stares as Harry is about to step off the ledge.
“Is it? No. Harry Berlin!” Milt says to the distraught Harry, and the laughter starts rolling.
Milt saves Harry from his suicidal self by convincing him that love is the answer to his life of despair, although he has an ulterior motive.
“You know, I am more in love today than on the day I married?” he tells Harry.
“You don’t mean —”
“Yes. But my wife won’t give me a divorce.”
Milt wants Harry to fall in love with his obdurate wife, who is about to meet him on the bridge, so that Milt can in turn marry his mistress.
Absurdist theater requires from the actors 100 percent commitment, and yet it is a delicate balance. Give the audience too much, and you will lose them. This trio of actors strikes a near-perfect tone, every moment turning on a dime. You think your life sucks, well, let me tell you about mine.
The three person cast, which also stars Jennifer Regan as Ellen Manville, works as a well-tuned instrument, playing off each other, listening and responding to each other’s pain with a bit more absurd pain of their own.
The direction by Lonny Price is masterful. Mr. Price has guided his actors to use every inch of the lovely set designed by James Noone. Mr. Noone gives us a realistic urban bridge, with evocative period images in the background and a sandbox in the foreground.
The set is noteworthy also because it gives an insight into Mr. Price’s vision for this piece. The original 1964 Broadway production, directed by a young Mike Nichols, was a groundbreaking one, combining absurdist comedy with the more traditional angst comedy of writers like Neil Simon and Woody Allen. It helped establish its original cast, Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson, as major theatrical stars.
Mr. Price has stayed true to that production without being slavish, allowing his talented threesome the freedom to spread their wings and soar, finding their own way through the period material, which they happily do. There is a wonderful sense of slapstick and fun in this production, leading to moments of sheer giddy silliness, all revolving around love.
Mr. James doing a snow angel in the sand after being freed from his despair by the concept of love.
Mr. Stanton’s gleeful sleaziness as he applies makeup to Ellen, preparing her for her first meeting with Harry, so that he can finally marry his own true love.
Ms. Regan’s hilarious transformation into chanteuse as she sings about the pain of love.
The characters all resonate in today’s world. Ellen, perfectly played by Ms. Regan, feels trapped by her own intellect, wishing she could be a ditzy housewife but unable to repress her own intelligence, which threatens men, leaving her isolated and alone.
Mr. Stanton’s Milt is a conniving, self-centered huckster whose ruthlessness knows no bounds. Mr. James’s Harry carries pathos to a new low, or, perhaps better put, a new comic height.
While Ms. Regan and Mr. Stanton have strong theater backgrounds, Mr. James’s bio seems more rooted in television, which makes his performance all the more remarkable, stepping into the role, as he did, a week before previews.
Mr. Price was and is a protégé of Stephen Sondheim, who, in turn, was a protégé of Richard Rodgers. It is a cornerstone tradition of theater that each generation teaches the next. Watching this production of “LUV,” you will hear faint echoes from the past, from great comics and comediennes like Burt Lahr, Carol Burnett, or, say, Zero Mostel.
There is only one thing missing from this production, at least on the Friday night I attended: a large and appreciative audience. The house in the lovely John Drew theater was sparsely filled.
Ellen Manville has a line toward the end of the show, one which Mr. Price highlighted in a pre-opening interview: “We’re all locked up in ourselves, in separate little compartments.” The more desperate the characters become in trying to break out of these compartments, the more we laugh.
If you want to experience just how funny emotional pain can be, catch “LUV” before it’s too late.