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18 Mar 2017

A Dark Comedy, Indeed: The Actors in 'Lovesport,' an Original Play by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, Can't Shake Off Stiffness

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Jerome Elliott and Alan Berry in Lovesport. Jerome Elliott and Alan Berry in Lovesport.

Remember those many old adages about walking a mile in another person’s shoes, or being a fly on the wall in someone else’s house—all sayings that basically mean you never know what goes on behind closed doors? Well, Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s Lovesport, now playing at the Pearl McManus Theatre in the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, gives you a chance to be the fly.

An original work by DETC founder and producing artistic director Tony Padilla, Lovesport is the latest in a series of his creations as an award-winning playwright, director and producer. Basically, it’s a gayer, less-warped homage to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Here it is: A couple arrives at their San Francisco-area suburban home where they’ve lived for many years, after a ghastly dinner party. One of them has invited another couple, whom they have just met, to join them for a nightcap. Bzzz bzzz … we get to watch what happens.

It’s a play all about relationships, and about commitment. Here we have four gentlemen, all nice-looking and successful in their chosen fields, but the biggest concern of their lives revolves around their partner and how they are getting along.

Jerome Elliott, who always is working at either a play or a cabaret show, plays Josh, a mature and world-weary misogynist. He is in a longtime committed relationship with Marty, a former actor, played by Alan Berry. Their guests are Gary, a painfully young hi-tech designer working at what is hinted to be Google or someplace like it, played by Cameron Shingler; and his husband of two years, Ben, who is an older and sophisticated architect, played by J. Gazpar Ascenio.

Other than a few jokes about what to wear for Halloween drag, the four converse about the same things everyone, everywhere in a suburban living room might discuss, gay or straight: relationships, making sacrifices, making mistakes, the future, romance, doubts, what the wedding was like, a partner whose sense of humor is beginning to fade, making a decision about whether or not to have a baby. We get to watch the four interact, and we see secrets and revelations about each of them revealed … accidentally or not.

The play is listed as a comedy, but there are not a lot of chortles. Do you know the defining difference between a comedy and a tragedy? No, it’s not counted in laughs. In a comedy, the protagonist, or lead character, gets what he wants. In a tragedy, he doesn’t. So this is a (rather dark) comedy, but the script contains some beautifully memorable lines like: “My fears keep me from making stupid mistakes.” Or: “He who listens, wins.” Or: “It smells like a Rastafarian hippy hut” after two of the characters light up a joint. Padilla’s writing is most interesting. He makes each of the personalities distinctively different—not an easy task when the cast consists of four males—and each has his own very individual voice. The author really knows people. (But a few more laughs wouldn’t hurt!) This is the fortunate result of the author acting as the play’s director also—the message becomes the star of the show.

Act 1 ends with a shock. There are two acts, and the running time is about 90 minutes. The actors all have to be complimented on their lovely diction. This is a difficult room to play, because its textures are so soft—carpets, curtains—and the sound gets soaked up. But despite excellent diction, the occasional last words of a sentence got lost through dropped volume and pitch. Watch that projection please, boys!

As far as the acting goes, there was a sense of stiffness that never went away. I was hoping that it was just initial first-night nerves, but the stiffness didn’t vanish as the play progressed, alas. We found the characters interesting, intellectually speaking—but they never moved us emotionally.

The other little problem is some overly busy and unmotivated blocking … one got the feeling that the characters had been told to move here or there, rather than being impelled by their emotions to move themselves. This is not a large deal, but it was enough to cause the occasional wrinkled brow. Director Padilla always keeps his stage balanced, but at the risk of chess-boarding the characters a little much.

The basic problem was believability—we just are not convinced that the actors are really that person going through those feelings, or that they are affected by their drinking wine or smoking pot … which is tricky to portray, admittedly, but the audience needs to see a change and not just hear about it. When they indulge in some gossip about a woman at the dinner party, the words are there, but the delivery falls a little flat—we neither savor it nor are taken aback by the bitchiness, because the characters don’t fully reveal how they feel. Acting is, alas, all about feelings, not just saying the words.

Don’t get me wrong: The play will definitely hold your attention, even if it’s partly the universal schadenfreude that sees someone else having problems while you sit there comfortably, relieved that it isn’t your life that’s being exposed for all to see.

What we are looking at here is something that seems to take most of a lifetime for people to learn: You can put two perfectly nice people together, but the bottom line is that it isn’t guaranteed to work, because it’s the relationship itself that is wrong. A relationship has its own life, separate from the individuals in it, and a relationship can be as vulnerable as the people involved in it. It’s endlessly challenging trying to guess who in life will make it and who won’t—just like in this play. Secrets and scars are not always readily apparent.

As one character in Lovesport wisely asserts, “Relationships are not for sissies.”

Lovesport, a performance by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theatre in the Palm Springs Woman's Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, visit www.detctheatre.org.

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