Romance starts with a wink. A sly smile or a causal nod that says, "Come a little closer and let me buy you a drink". Mabou Mines' newest production, the provocatively titled I Love Dick, flirts with the audience early, only to end up stiffing them on the booze.
Adapted and directed by Leslie Mahn from the book by Chris Kraus, I Love Dick is the story of a pair of intellectuals who rekindle old flames by writing love letters together to a man named Dick. Critics lauded the book, a heated recounting of actual events masquerading as a novel, for its honesty and decried it as bourgeois navel-gazing. Mercifully, Ms. Mahn spares us most of the post-modern musing to focus on the two lovers and their imaginary infidelity.
The mood is set early, with soft music and a single rose glowing under a spotlight when, inexplicably, a teddy bear-sized narrator enters and soothingly sets the scene: Chris Kraus, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker and her husband, Sylvere Lotringer, a 56-year-old professor, is entertaining Dick, a cultural critic. After an evening of innuendoes and insinuations at Dick's house, Chris reveals her secret lust for him to her husband. What ensues is a passionate orgy of love letter writing by Chris and Sylvere. They labor over a notebook computer, giddily composing pedantic gush-notes that they never send. This shared fantasy turns out to be just the aphrodisiac the sexually inert couple needs.
But then, the plot thickens. Sylvere's interest in Dick continues growing, finally leading him to invite Dick into their virtual ménage a trois. All the while, the idea of fidelity and relationships frames the play's basic debate: whether the foundation of romance is fantasy or a mutually agreed-upon myth that we indulge in and are nourished by.
I Love Dick, however, also illustrates the challenges in adapting prose for the stage. Sometimes Mahn does succeed in wrestling dramatic form out of what must be pages of erudite bellyaching and art world name-dropping, but once again, inexplicably, the narrator bares the brunt of driving the action. A dramatic device--the narrator framing each scene and delivering important plot details. But we are also never clear as to what this narrator is or why he is telling us the story, thereby reducing him to an obvious conceit.
To his credit, Peabody rises above his structural function and imbues his lulling voice with ample emotional resonance. His presence is ultimately warm enough that we do give into his story of three lovers, represented by two wedding-cake figurines and a toy cowboy.
It also helps that the couple, played by Jan Leslie Harding and George Bartenieff, sparkle with a mature sexuality. Bartenieff, with his vague European lilt and wild tufts of gray hair, impishly writes his letters with the abandon of a schoolgirl writing her pop idol. Harding is equally beguiling; her trembling voice and fragile demeanor are textured with longing, frustration and desire. Together, they share a wonderful, simmering chemistry that saves the narrator-logged script. They do serve the script loyally, but one imagines that the play really begins when the story ends.