Imperfect Love comes a long way from its inception as Duse, to its development as the film Illuminata, to its most recent incarnation at the newly renovated Ryan Stage at New York Performance Works. At the turn of the 20th century, when the play is set, flamboyant theater is on its final legs as the tastes of Europeans begin to turn to the realistic, catching lovers--and lovers of the old theater--in between.

The love affair of impassioned actress Eleanora Della Rosa and playwright Gabriele Torrisi (historically based on that of Eleanora Duse and Gabriele D'Annunzio) is threatened when their play flops on its opening night and the theater owners want to move A Doll's House into their space. Ibsen's play has roles for Eleanora and the leading man Domenica, but alas, realistic theater has no room for clowns. This does not bode well for Marco and Beppo, the clowns and the backbone of the troupe. Love binds the five-member company together as they struggle to resuscitate their play within a day, lest their happy family be broken.

Our perceptions are challenged as each scene twists through reality and the surreal terrain of a show in revision. The two clowns Beppo and Marco attempt to overhaul the play by observing the passionate conflict between Eleanora and Gabriele. A true zeal for theater is revealed in each of these characters while they walk a very thin line between the stage and life.

Leslie Lyles delivers an intensely emotional Eleanora Della Rosa, whose loyalty to Gabriele is tested--as is his to her--while they frantically fix the problems of the play. Everyone has a bone to pick with Gabriele, who is himself the most exasperated character (afterall, it is HIS play they're trying to change!).

Beppo and Marco are truly a delight to watch. Their witty repartees continue to show that it is a fool's prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak. Marco, played by Ed Hodson, is clown that gets along with everyone. "The Beppo", played by Peter Dinklage, is a refreshing character for dwarf actors, who even in this day and age still get stereotypical roles. Dinklage plays Beppo as a cunning clown who ultimately proves to be the mayhem-inducing catalyst of the play.

Domenica is played by John Gould Rubin, who is experienced with la comedie francaise from his involvement with the Misanthrope. He brings a lovable arrogance to the leading man, creating a wonderful foil for other characters as he swaggers around flipping his hair and flourishing his period costume. It seems he would not terribly mind playing the lead in Ibsen's work, yet it is revealed that he really loves his collaboration with the troupe and would be terribly hurt if it were to end.

One may think it would be difficult to observe a play within a play, but Imperfect Love accomplishes it seamlessly and with passion. Every second of every scene follows a crescendo from soft tenderness to explosive fury as each character catalyzes elements for the revision through their interactions. Each character is so vibrant--their interactions mirror that of a dysfunctional yet loving family.

When I found myself swiftly turning my head back and forth between characters during rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue, the period costumes provided sumptuous eye candy. The set design's elegance contrasts beautifully with the madcap hilarity of the characters that inhabit it. Writer/director Brandon Cole proves that what makes love perfect is that it is imperfect, while he simultaneously revives interest in this tumultuous time period for the theater.