Michelle Clunie’s ambitious two-hander, US: A Progressive Love Story, at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre, is an attempt to use a tempestuous love affair between two sophisticated adults as a metaphor for contemporary American politics. It’s a tall order that comes up short, possibly because the writing makes its points too much by telling rather than by showing.
The work starts off smartly as we see a series of projected film clips (by Aaron Rhyne) of a joyously happy couple that turns to comedy as the delirium of their love bumps up into purposeful cliché. The topper comes when the same two actors are suddenly on stage, with the female (Clunie) arriving in a foul-mouthed fury at her more placid and apparently dumbfounded mate (Jeff LeBeau). She accuses him of infidelity on the day in 2008 that he is supposed to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for the Senate.
What follows is a recreation of the history of their relationship, told in a non-linear series of scenes in which they investigate what went wrong between them. In these early scenes, there is a genuine sense of connection between these two lovers (and these two actors) that seems tangible. They seem very much like a couple, complete with pet names and insistent ways in which they cajole each other into submission.
The play begins to suffer, however, when they cease to feel like real people and become political commercials. The point of no return is when the couple portentously muse about an Obama Presidency in which our new leader manages in his first term to somehow save the economy from collapse and pass groundbreaking new health care legislation -- and that they would guess, even should he manage such heroic feats, he would still have to fight for his political life in the 2012 election.
Later on, when the writing is even more self-aware, the actors start referring to themselves in the “third act” of their play, and the early, buoyant boldness of the piece finally turns to lead.
Fortunately, Jennifer Gelfer directs her two actors with a keen understanding of the need to keep her players in constant motion, lest the play devolve into two talking heads. The actors move on and off the stage, into the audience space, as well as climbing up to a landing high above the stage to suggest a scene in a nightclub.
The director is aided, in large part, by the fact that her two actors are both versatile and game performers. Clunie is, as might be expected, sometimes “actressy” -- and it’s a bit of a trap that she doesn’t always escape. However, LaBeau -- underplaying his role and throwing off his comic lines with easy charm -- never fails to be winning even as Clunie is the supposed injured party of the piece.