Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Love List: Perfect Summer Comedy at NCRT

Kimberly Haile (formerly known as Kim Hodel) has had featured roles with the North Coast Repertory Theatre, including Roxy in Chicago and Carlotte Corday in Marat/Sade, but this time she’s central to the success of The Love List, the buoyant comedy now earning laughs at NCRT in Eureka.

It’s not that she carries it by herself. Edward Olson as Bill (a solitary statistician) and Victor Howard as Leon (a married but philandering novelist) have more dialogue and stage time in this tale about two middle aged men who draw up a list defining Bill’s perfect woman. They establish the believable reality: Olson with his beguiling voice and early line readings that suggest an active acting intelligence, and Howard with his confidence and crisp delivery (as the writer, he gets more of the witty lines.)

The script is itself a solid foundation, with built-in laughs and defined characters that still provide room for actors to add crucial colors. That it’s perfect for community theatre makes perfect sense, because playwright Norm Foster (author of some 40 plays) started in community theatre in Canada.

But Haile’s role of Justine, the “perfect woman” who suddenly appears, defines the direction that a production takes. When the guys change the qualities that define Justine, Haile ably and delightfully demonstrates more range than she’s been called upon to produce before. But most important is how Justine is portrayed from the start. Since her fantasy perfection is defined by two men, she must be beautiful, but a tick towards the wrong kind of beautiful—too vulgar or too innocent— would throw off the feeling that in this context she’s real and magic at the same time.

With her particular natural beauty, an ingénue enthusiasm channeled into relaxed and economical gestures, and the conviction she brings to the reality of Justine, Haile makes the magic work. She brings a quality of guileless sincerity that is breathtaking, and makes Justine not just a vain dream but the personification of perfection. No wonder Bill is so besotted that he’s willing to forget that her existence is completely inexplicable: this perfect-for-him woman conjured by words and (its broadly hinted) spare skin cells adhering to the household dust.

But of course there are multiple ironies ahead as well as a version of the old switcheroo, plus the lesson that perfection is impossible and the trick is to see “imperfection perfectly.” (Unfortunately the script’s dismissive reference to the perfect game in baseball got additional irony on opening night, because Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle had pitched the 18th perfect game in Major League history that afternoon.)

Most reviews of other productions parade innumerable clichés to make the point that this play is funny, with some adding that it’s profound, and others that it’s shallow. In at least one interview, playwright Foster glories in insisting that he’s shallow (as he has Justine call Leon’s novels) but for me, the truth lies somewhere in between. There are facile contrivances and conventional and bluntly stated insights, but Foster hides structural subtlety within a strong framework. He’s dealing with both a pop culture phenomenon (“real” mates conjured by a love list, as recounted in the pages of Oprah’s magazine) but also powerful archetypes from Galatea to Pinocchio. So: a fun summer comedy, plus.

Among her accomplishments, director Carol Escobar provides pace and motion, and probably was responsible for making the male characters younger than called for in the script—something else that likely adds to the sweetness and gentle ironies. Edward Olson designed the impressive set, Calder Johnson the effective lighting, and Genneveve Hood the expressive costumes. Howard Lang designed sound, and Olson also designed the poster, which doesn’t look as if it caused him much pain. Kelsey Larson runs the light and sound, and William Nevins provided scenic art.

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