Love Bites

26. October, 2010 Theater No comments

An old colleague of mine from the good old days of the East Bay Express, Daniel Heath has done pretty well for himself since he took up playwriting five years ago to join the PlayGround pool of one-act writers. Last year PianoFight produced his Choose Your Own Adventure-style audience-voted sex comedies, Fork Off Down Your Own Forking Adventure Which You’ve Forked: FORKING! and A Merry FORKING! Christmas, and this December the Climate Theatre will unveil his rock musical update of a Restoration comedy, The Man of Rock.

Jessica Coghill and Cole Alexander Smith in Seven Days. Photo by Gregg Le Blanc.

Right now SF Playhouse is debuting his full-length play Seven Days as part of the theater’s Sandbox Series on its second stage, briskly directed by company cofounder Susi Damilano. The play was originally commissioned by PlayGround, which coproduced this world premiere.

Seven Days isn’t exactly a romantic comedy, although it certainly has funny parts, but it shares that genre’s emphasis on relationships shaping personality rather than the other way around. It follows a newly engaged couple, a long-married couple and a potential new couple from a party where they’re all assembled and checks in with them each day over the next week.

An assemblage of white tiered platforms and three white screens on one side, a faux brick wall reminiscent of a comedy club on the other, Jeremy Harris’s spare set invites us not to take anything too literally.

Miyuki Bierlein’s costumes are hip in a self-conscious uptown way appropriate to the characters, and the jazzy incidental music in Mike Iacuessa’s sound design is suitable for the art opening that sets the scene.

Artist Al Allen is a starry-eyed romantic, enthusiastic to the point of pigheadedness. He proposes marriage to his girlfriend, who seems not to want to even be there, just before the aforementioned opening. “Is this part of the installation?” she asks after a long pause.

Al’s latest project is an installation where people plot out their past relationships on a graph, drawn on transparencies on an overhead projector. The x axis shows progress over time, and the y axis is a purely subjective interpretation of the level of love. This leads to personal monologues from each of the characters while doing their graphs that are interspersed between scenes for the rest of the play, although it’s never quite clear whether these speeches are supposed to be informed by the events we’ve witnessed in the meantime or are simply flashbacks to the party.

Cole Alexander Smith’s artfully manic performance as Al subtly suggests that his very romanticism is a form of aggressiveness. On some level he knows that jumping in with both feet is a bad idea, but he does it anyway, and if it doesn’t work out nobody can say it’s his fault for not trying. The play doesn’t necessarily get into all that, but it’s pretty obvious that proposing to Anna is a terrible idea, as is his cloying habit of calling her “fiancée” in every sentence. It’s like his current art project: Everybody wants him to go back to his portraits of famous people as lizards, and going backward isn’t necessarily the greatest idea, but this relationship-charting thing isn’t the greatest idea either, as art or as a date activity. But as a plot device, it gets the job done.

As played by Jessica Coghill, Anna’s defining characteristic is discontent. She’s happy to play hostess a little black dress with her artist boyfriend, but she’s miserable about the engagement from the very moment Al proposes. The fact that she even says yes feels dishonest, because everything about her screams no, but in such a transparent way that it hardly counts. You never wonder if it’s going to work out between them, just why on earth she’s stringing him along and how he can be so oblivious to the fact that she’s not that into him. When we finally get into her romantic history it’s that of someone who can never settle on one person, place or thing for very long, and that indeed seems to pretty well sum her up.

Also at the opening are a married couple who are friends of theirs—at first it’s not altogether clear how they know Al and Anna, but we eventually glean that Eve is Anna’s boss. Donna Dahrouge gives Eve the air of a confident professional woman, but we never really get to know her. Aaron Murphy has sad sack charm as Eve’s husband Robert, a freelance journalist and stay-at-home dad who seems to have settled in on a low-key self-image as a house husband, utterly defined by his relationship

Phoebe Moyer makes a formidable hardass as Beatrice Merriweather, Al’s prim Christian mother who doesn’t much approve of anything but is at least willing to tolerate it. David Cramer provides a perfect foil for her as Robert’s father, Tank Alderman, a gruff and confrontational veteran who can’t help getting in Beatrice’s face about her religiosity. Tank wants to punch Jesus in the face for taking his dog away, by which he really means his wife, but that’s too close to home to talk about. So of course he calls to ask Beatrice out but can’t help but harangue her about the stupidity of religion some more.

“Are you satisfied with this world, Mr. Alderman?” she asks. “If your answer is yes, I don’t think we have much to talk about.”  This shuts Tank up, which is interesting because this response indicates the weakness of her argument much more than his. If you’re unsatisfied with this world, you should be doing everything you can to make it better rather than giving up on it and devoting all your energy to some fantastic realm in the clouds after you die instead. As initially off-putting as they are, the parents are easily the most fun and likeable characters in the play, just as Anna is easily the least sympathetic.

One of the strongest scenes was performed as a stand-alone short play, “Wednesday,” in the 2009 Best of PlayGround Festival, where it felt more fleshed out than it does here.  In it Eve and Robert play a drinking game oddly reminiscent of The Newlywed Game. They ask each other questions and write down what they think the answers will be, and the game soon takes an ugly turn.

Over the seven days, people make bad decisions in a way that feels inevitable, in part because the characters are loosely sketched out with precisely the character traits that make it so. The plot ultimately feels thin, and the device of returning to the first day at the end doesn’t have the impact it seems intended to have, mostly because it doesn’t tell us anything we hadn’t already gathered. It just feels like Heath didn’t know how to end it.

Ultimately it feels like an exercise, a rumination on relationships, and on that level there’s a lot of interesting material in it. Beatrice asserts that the description of love in First Corinthians that’s used in practically every wedding service can’t possibly refer to human love, which is in fact impatient and unkind, but can only refer to love of God. It’s not exactly going to make you believe in love, but it sure might make you take a good long look at it.

Seven Days
Through November 6
SF Playhouse Second Stage
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #106 of 2010, attended October 16.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment