'Love Burns' at Empire Stage: Lovely Atmosphere, Uneven Comedy
For the current production Love Burns, Nicole Stodard's Thinking Cap Theatre has been transformed into a coffee shop called Hip Sip Coffee, which shamelessly milks the branding of a certain ubiquitous coff eehouse chain. During the "night of coffee and one-act comedies," there are two comedic short plays, both set in coffeehouses. At intermission, the set becomes a functioning cafe, delighting theater guests who had been lustily eying the red velvet cake throughout the first act. Patrons are encouraged to sit at the tables and enjoy their lattes and Madeleines while the engaging singer-actress Shira Abergel, who plays a barista in both shows, entertains the crowd with live ukulele music.
There's something warm and inviting about the interactive atmosphere, which immerses ticket-buyers into the kumbaya pleasantry of a small hippie java joint. But are the bells and whistles of Love Burns enough to make up for the thin — if anorexic — amount of live theater you actually get for your money? I would be surprised if the first act runs longer than 15 minutes, thanks to heightened, machine-gun dialogue that makes HBO's Veep appear slothlike.
Titled Date With a Stranger, it stars Ashley Price and David Michael Sirois as strangers who meet over coffee and cookies and begin to participate in self-reflexive deconstruction of a relationship arc, from the sexual energy of a first glance to the tribulations of children and domestic life to a loveless dissolution, all in one manic sitting. The characters are too much like fictional constructs to be taken seriously, and emotional connection is nil. This kind of arch meta-theater struck me as profound in college, but it looks ever more juvenile today. The piece is wonderfully executed, for what it's worth — the two actors never seem to miss a beat, and it's awfully easy to miss one — but the result should have been a lot funnier to justify the labored form.
Luckily, the second show is a total 180 from the first. Written by the same playwright, Cherie Vogelstein, but in a more naturalistic style, All About Al is a generous showcase for the comic talents of Mark Della Ventura. He plays Lenny, a cheerfully suicidal fashion nightmare with slippers, blue Muppet pajamas, a mismatched Where's Waldo shirt, tousled hair, and two scarves too many. He has a chance coffeehouse meeting with Gil (Sirois again), a brooding acquaintance who is waiting to meet his girlfriend, essentially to break up with her. The two actors have a magical, Martin-and-Lewis rapport, with Della Ventura as the wacky banana man and Gil the sulky straight man; they deserve credit simply for making it through the scenario without laughing. Every joke hits with perfect accuracy, and Della Ventura even injects something unexpected into the denouement: tragic pathos. Love Burns could have begun stronger, but director Stodard knows exactly where to end it.
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