There's something a little ridiculous about every romantic affair, from the silly things lovers coo at each other to the lies they tell. Alan Hruska examines the relationship of a strange yet often recognizable couple in his new play Laugh It Up, Stare It Down, now running at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Unfortunately, Hruska's neo-absurdist comedy (reminiscent of the work of Will Eno), with 12 short scenes packed into 95 minutes, elicits more blank stares than laughs.
The play opens with a chance meeting between Joe (Jayce Bartok) and Cleo (Katya Campbell) on the street of a college town. Joe is convinced that Cleo will leave her current boyfriend and choose to spend her life with him instead. And he's right. The two start dating, ever so awkwardly, with Cleo's sexual inexperience making her reluctant to jump in the sack with Joe. But she does, and then they get married, have a baby (which is lost by the hospital staff, then found), and host cocktail parties with friends. One of those friends, Dorothy (Amy Hargreaves), blithely admits to seducing Joe. Shocked at the news, Cleo tells Joe to leave. But eventually she lets him come back, and as the years pass (20 in all), her wounds seem to heal — that is, until the couple travels to Venice, where Cleo entertains the thought of having an affair with art-gallery curator Arturo (Maury Ginsberg). A sudden flash flood back home nixes those plans, however, and lands Joe and Cleo on a buoy, where they're left to contemplate the meaning of their lives.
Hruska's characters most often speak in bursts of stilted, stylized dialogue that alternate between philosophical and farcical, and his plot points move from one non sequitur to the next. Director Chris Eigeman also allows his two main actors, Bartok and Campbell, to thrum their lines with little emoting, making the language distant and colorless. Unexpected human behavior can make such plays entertaining, but Hruska's jabs at humor miss the mark more often than not, as when an intruder (also played by Ginsberg) enters Joe and Cleo's home, points a gun at Joe, and engages him in a game of Russian roulette and a metaphysical discussion of chance, only to leave when he fires a blank. The scene's attempt at a clever joke does the same.
Though Hargreaves and Ginsberg build complex characters in their four roles apiece, the play's three-act structure feels overambitious for a 95-minute piece (interrupted by an unnecessary 15-minute intermission) that encompasses 20 years of a quirky marriage. Kevin Judge's set — which includes a magnificent chandelier that takes on a surprising function at the end — provokes interest with its large backdrop of windows that are illuminated whimsically between scenes while bouncy electronic music plays (lighting by Matthew J. Fick and sound design by Peter Salett).
Laugh It Up, Stare It Down rests squarely in the modern absurdist tradition, but one wishes, while watching Joe and Cleo floating on their buoy, that the play's humor didn't seem equally adrift.
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