Review: Love/Sick by John Cariani, done by Diane Irwin and friends, January 24 - 31, 2016
by Michael Meigs
Playwright John Cariani's gift is his ability to sketch in whimsical lines of ever so lightly ironic dialogue the longings and disappointments of the human heart. In Love/Sick, currently premiering in Austin as part of the displaced FronteraFest Long Fringe, Cariani uses exactly the same theatrical format as his wildly successful Almost, Maine in 2004 --a succession of short scenes performed by different pairs of actors, each turning on a quirk or surprise that spotlights the unexpected.
They're similar in form to the classical blackout sketch, that quick set-up for a punch line that provokes laughter and instantly disappears as the lights go down. But Cariani works in longer form and enjoys exploring the consequences of his puzzlements.
The success of Almost, Maine was due not only to Cariani's humor but also to the flexibility of his format. It's relatively easy for students and community theatres to master. The size of the cast for that piece and his new Love/Sick is flexible, ranging from four to almost twenty, lightening the load of lines to be learned, and no single sketch dominates the others. I saw and enjoyed a production of Cariani's earlier script at the Gaslight Baker Theatre in Lockhart in 2009 and at McCallum Fine Arts Academy's 2010 'On Tour' production at the Blue Theatre. In 2013 and 2014 Almost, Maine and A Midsummer Night's Dream traded places #1 and #2 on the list of the plays most produced by U.S. high schools. Here in Central Texas just in the last two years it's been done by Austin's Trinity Street Theatre, San Antonio's University of the Incarnate Word, and the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Handicapped.
When in October 2014 the school board shut down a North Carolina high school production before opening because of objections to a scene in which two young men commiserating over their dating failures are astonished to find an attraction to one another, I was one of many Kickstarter contributors who helped the cast stage it independently.
Almost, Maine was mostly about the discovery of love; the sketches in Love/Sick, though often comic, look more at disappointments, shortcomings and constraints: When the heart begins to throb unexpectedly, are we able to respond? Are our affections real or are they shaped by society's expectations? And what do we do when the thrill is gone?
In this format everyone has the opportunity to be a star, and the friends working with Diane Irwin on Cariani's new production for the 2016 FronteraFest Long Fringe handsomely fill the bill. For example, Melanie Notinger and Evan Davies, both obsessive-compulsives, discover one another in the 'Super Center' that looms ominously in the background of many of these sketches; Eric Meo the singing-telegram man festooned with red balloons turns up to serenade Brianna Ripowski with unexpected news from her beau.
David Bankston and Evan Davies find themselves dealing with a love that (literally) cannot speak its name. Boredom with matrimony turns into terror in an exchange between Eric Meo and Lizette Zuniga; Ashley Thurow and David Bankston bump into one another in that Super Center and face the rush and risk of unexpected re-encounters.
One of the most affecting scenes has Melanie Notinger rifling through cartons in the garage in search of something, vexed that she can't remember what it is. We discover that in choosing to be a stay-at-home mother she has somehow lost herself. In an all too familiar recap of American family life, Marci Blackwell as her partner the family breadwinner does her best to help her find what's missing.
Each scene has surprises and each convinces. This gang of friends presents these nuggets clearly and convincingly, using a minimum of props in the great central space of the Museum of Human Achievement. They're all of an age to be keenly exposed to the sweet dangers of which Cariani is cautioning us, and it's evident that they're having a very good time living and delivering his whimsical messages.
Proof of their zeal and adaptability is the fact that they quickly located and adapted this performing space when the original FronteraFest Long Fringe venue was unexpectedly shut down four days before their scheduled opening night. Although the proprietors of the Museum of Human Achievement, a capacious unheated warehouse, don't want the locale revealed except to those who've purchased tickets, here's a hint: it's no more than a couple of stones' throw from the shuttered Ground Floor Theatre on Springdale and maybe one good heave from the disappeared Blue Theatre. The company cautions you to dress warmly, and they provide both blankets and a bar of beverages to help with the chill. The wit of the writing and the warmth of the performances are just as helpful as a tonic.
January 24 - January 31, 2016
3600 Lyons Road
Austin, TX, 78702
Sun. 1/24 @ 8 pm
Wed. 1/27 @ 8:30 pm
Sat. 1/30 @ 4:15 pm
Sun. 1/31 @ 12 pm