FINDING EACH OTHER IN A BIG-BOX STORE Two impulsive characters in John Cariani's Love/Sick.
A man and a woman in a Walmart-type store are driven into each other's arms by their Obsessive Impulsive disorder. A man has a condition that keeps him from hearing the words "I love you" from his new lover. A woman with a wife and young child searches desperately through the garage for something she's lost — herself. These are sketches from the romantic and domestic foibles of Love/Sick, a series of vignettes and the latest play by John Cariani, the Maine-born author of Almost, Maine and Last Gas. It is presented in a vivid, buoyant production of Portland Stage Company, under the direction of Sally Wood.
Like both Almost, Maine and Last Gas, Love/Sick (starring Patricia Buckley, Torsten Hillhouse, Abigail Kileen, and David Mason) explores conflicts of love and family with a sweet and sometimes madcap comedy, a touch of allegory, and occasional resolutions of uncertainty or darkness. These stories are staged before a twilight-blue backdrop with a pearly house and lamb-like clouds, as in a children's book, and on a handsome rotating set of realistic domestic settings — an attractive living room, a bedroom, a Raymond-Carver-looking front of a track house with its scrappy rear end of an air conditioner. Between vignettes, on its way to the next scene, the set rotates past settings we have seen before or are about to, which helps this collection of stories to resonate with an interesting simultaneity, as one many-faceted whole.
This fine set design (Anita Stewart's) nicely echoes the nature of Cariani's storytelling: playfully whimsical, but grounded in realistic romantic worries. Love is obsessive, literally deafening, boring if sustained. Children or the prospect of them are a salvation, a weight, the subject of intractable impasse. Cariani's characters are often brainy and neurotic, obsessed with statistics and articles about marriage; they are self-conscious, defeatist romantics who are nonetheless willing to make leaps of faith.
All four of the show's fantastic ensemble actors, each of whom has previously appeared on PSC's stage, play five fairly wide-ranging characters, and they do so with aplomb and the dynamism that these stylized little stories demand. It's fun to see Mason, who has often played insecure or repressed Cariani characters,lay not just a scared, neurotic husband but also a smug, self-satisfied one, as well as a confident, forthcoming lover to Hillhouse's sweetly hesitant Jamie, who also plays a sweetly poignant singing telegram guy. Killeen's substantial comic gifts and intelligence are used well, swerving between over-the-top "obsessive impulsive" antics in the superstore to a wry wife humoring an antic husband. Buckley does some delicious work with a darkish irony; her facial expressions are priceless in a married-life sketch, as the smiles she returns to her husband over her Yale Review quietly morph into pitying, mocking boredom.
Cariani's script, which originally appeared as part of PSC's Little Festival of the Unexpected, underwent collaborative revision over the course of rehearsals for this first full production: For example, the superstore setting was changed from a bar, the program notes, after it was learned that more Americans are looking for love at Walmart. Such funny-weird facts and metaphors (the wife looking for herself in boxes, another having had "sex" for lunch at the luncheon) are the sparks of the show. How they play out dramatically could still use some tightening in places: the conceits sometimes stall here and there along the way, stuck on repetition of the same sentiment or dialogue ("What's going on?" "I don't know, what is going on?") before moving on to the next turn.