Lindsay Christians, 77 Square
Photo by Zane Williams
When the nervous bride asks her earnest, slightly dopey groom whether he “really likes” her hat, it is tempting to yell at him:
The man, a husband for less than three hours, doesn’t recognize a minefield when he’s stepped in one. An evasive response (“I don’t know anything ... I like that blue hat you had”) sends his new wife into a flurry of guilt and jealousy.
The groom’s face falls. He’s doomed.
The title of “Love Stories,” Forward Theater’s triple bill running in the Playhouse through April 29, could seem a bit misleading. This is no Valentine’s Day special, though it’s not overly cynical, either.
As directed with sensitivity and intelligence by Milwaukee’ s Paula Suozzi, “Love Stories” is an evening of three one-act plays showing a shifting kaleidoscope of love and marriage.
It’s made more effective by a framing technique using visible dressing rooms and snippets from the lives of the show’s two performers. Real-life married couple James Ridge and Colleen Madden are both excellent actors and company members at American Players Theatre.
In “Here We Are,” written by Dorothy Parker in 1931, Madden and Ridge play a quarrelsome couple, both of whom thought their relationship would change (specifically, improve) after they walked down the aisle.
No such luck. Crooning “let’s don’t ever fight” becomes “too bad you didn’t marry somebody that would get the kind of hats you like” and “why didn’t you marry Joe Brooks?”
Madden frets and criticizes as the unnamed wife, and one imagines Ridge’s character as a young Walter Mitty, retreating to a place where he can’t say the wrong thing.
The second play, “The Jewish Wife” by Bertolt Brecht, was published in 1938 as part of “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich.” In it, Madden plays a woman forced to leave her home by growing anti-Semitism that she’s certain will cost her husband his position.
Most telling here are the long pauses. Madden breathes and steels herself for the calls she must make, saying goodbye to friends and asking family to look in on her husband, who does not appear until the end of the scene. The import of each call, and the way that societal hatred has poisoned a private home, becomes clear as Madden straightens her spine even as she fights back wails.
George Bernard Shaw’s one act, “Village Wooing,” makes up the second half of the production, a sweet, funny, characteristically verbal piece that shows the pair of actors at their best.
The first scene is on the deck of a cruise ship. Ridge plays A, a brusque British writer of travel books. Madden is Z, a gregarious village woman determined to draw him out.
Her persistence in the face of his repeated brush-offs begins to feel almost masochistic, as Ridge wrinkles his brow in supreme irritation.
“Work is my only pleasure,” he says pointedly, adding, “It is your privilege as a woman to have the last word. Please take it.”
But Z ignores him — or rather, refuses to let him alone. By the time they meet again in the village shop where she works, A is as good as hers, though it will take him another several months to know it.
Suozzi’s direction lifts Shaw’s back-and-forth banter off the page and turns it into a true love affair, though the single kiss doesn’t come until nearly the last moment of the play. Madden hovers on the deck of the ship like a bee on a flower, but just as Ridge’s character turns toward her, she’s off again.
What each of the plays have in common, aside from two actors and a reluctance to give the characters names, are a series of quiet, powerful revelations.
In “Here We Are,” Madden makes it clear that her character babbles and bickers because she’s petrified of the marital bed, cowed by the commitment she’s just made.
In “Jewish Wife,” the title character can see the changes in her husband, and recognizes that character “doesn’t last forever.”
And in “Village Wooing,” Ridge and Madden disarm one another quite surprisingly — one with aloofness, the other with chatter. Shaw can get wordy, but the pacing is perfect, and the characters feel fallible and very real.
The whole production is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s enough to restore one’s faith in the power of theater, if not in the power of lifelong matrimony.
Posted on 4-16-12