Love Potion #3

The Maiden’s Prayer at Mad Horse
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 24, 2010

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BRASH BUT VULNERABLE Lisa Muller-Jones shines as Libby.

More people love Taylor (Burke Brimmer) than is good for harmony. Surly Libby (Lisa Muller-Jones) dated him only briefly, back in his drinking days, but still holds a violent flame. Listlessly promiscuous Paul (cast as Craig Bowden, but acted by director Peter Brown last weekend) fell for him way back when both were boys in short pants. But it’s Cynthia (Elizabeth Chambers), Libby’s infuriatingly perfect sister, who has Taylor’s heart. She marries him in the outset of The Maiden’s Prayer, and thereafter lots of love goes unreciprocated, misdirected, and generally suffered in Nicky Silver’s dark comedy, in riveting production at Mad Horse.

Silver’s New York urbanite characters are entertainingly sassy; their banter is brisk, mordant, and casually obscene. Muller-Jones as Libby, the downward-spiraling J-Crew-underling-turned-prostitute, is especially delectable in delivering Silver’s barbs. We first find her, at Cynthia and Todd’s wedding party, fuming to Paul about the “malignant lump of mud” where her sister’s heart should be. She goes on to lament, in wry Gen-X fashion, the Bronte novels and teenage pop songs that have shaped her impossible romantic ideals. Muller-Jones magnificently makes Libby at once outrageously brash and deeply, profoundly vulnerable.

She also helps pose some dramatic character contrasts, which is part of what’s most striking in Silver’s script, and in Brown’s pitch-perfect casting. Her vivid rancor plays sharply against Brown’s more languid frustrations as her newfound buddy Paul, and particularly against the cartoon glee of Paul’s omnipresent one-night-stand Andrew (David Timm, who practically bounces off everything he encounters). Brown has chosen well in pairing Muller-Jones with Chambers as the competitive sisters; these two fine actors make the women’s rapport taut, perilous, and richly complicated with hidden love. Both characters glide fluently through their glib exchanges, but when Silver pulls the patter out from under them, and forces them to confront the void — as when Libby recalls her first trick, or Cynthia the miscarriage that breaks her marriage — the candor of their hurt is spellbinding.

As the man in the middle, a former alcoholic who has been saved by Cynthia’s love, Brimmer lets us see the insecurities and desperation that lie barely beneath his surface. Less evident in his portrayal is the golden charisma that has enchanted three different people, and on the strength of which he is said to have ridden since the age of six. Brimmer is much more convincing once Taylor falls from his state of grace, loses his grip and his sobriety, and makes manifest all his latent doubt. The fatigue and numbness in his eyes and limbs are haunting as he sleepwalks in and out of his blank sugarcake house (a design by Stacey Koloski and David Seddon that conjures up a modern, modular fairy-tale home) takes in the fallout of his great love.

Sometimes slowly, sometimes in leaps, the constellations of characters, needs, and loves shift. Though some of the show’s pace and momentum seems a little off as the end nears, Brown’s cast makes beautiful work of developing these characters’ facets, and letting us see both shadows and shine. The Maiden’s Prayer shows us a range of love’s manifestations and effects, from Libby’s savvy rage, to Taylor’s shell-shock, to Andrew’s simple, devoted glee. The resulting portrait shows their romantic chaos as rich in beauty as in despair.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at mgrumbling@hotmail.com.

THE MAIDEN’S PRAYER | by Nicky Silver | Directed by Peter Brown | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, at the Portland Performing Arts Center | through April 4 | 207.730.2389

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