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Rebecca Luker in Can’t Let Go
The hardest type of play to write today is the contemporary romantic comedy. In our cynical age, audiences are loath to buy into a premise that requires belief in romance. Some would say that romance died shortly after God passed away -- not that those two things have anything to do with each other, except that both require faith.

Still, playwrights keep trying their hands at romantic comedies -- and rarely do they succeed. We don't see many plays like Barefoot in the Park these days, do we? Instead, we get works that try to sidestep the problem by making a fundamental concession to our cynicism. The authors make the characters wacky and give them outrageous things to say and do; in this way, romantic comedy becomes comedy of the absurd. Such a play has just opened at the Connelly Theatre on East 4th Street. It's called Can't Let Go, and its by Keith Reddin.

Rarely have we seen a play that begins so promisingly and then self-destructs so quickly. Can't Let Go begins with an attractive employee named Beth (Rebecca Luker, making her NYC non-musical debut) being interviewed at her corporate workstation by fellow employee Bill (Brian Hutchison). The survey questions make Beth nervous, and she fears that her job is in jeopardy. Bill tries to reassure her that the survey has nothing to do with her job performance, but the questions and answers start to spin wildly out of control. The scene culminates with a sudden twist that rightfully earns thunderous laughter from the audience. It's the first and last big laugh of the play.

After this scintillating start, Reddin begins churning out variations on the same theme, each more broadly outrageous and less credible than the scene that preceded it. Can't Let Go is essentially a one-joke play about three wildly different people who are passionately -- one might say, insanely -- in love with the same woman. One is a sweet-tempered stalker from the accounting department, another is the woman's sexually crazed boss, and the third is an unabashedly aggressive lesbian co-worker. Beth does not love any of these people in return; on the contrary, she is repelled and frightened by their attentions. She insists that she has a boyfriend, and she does (he's played by Glenn Fleshler), but he has major problems of his own. When Beth goes bananas in an effort to save this doomed relationship, she proves to be as cracked as those who are so madly in pursuit of her. The painfully obvious point is that romantic desire makes fools of us all.

The play's formulaic structure compels each character to come on to Beth in a strict pattern. First they announce their passion, then they each take it back (always with some sort of twist), and so on. The play is so predictable that even Beth guesses what one of her suitors will say next. No matter that she turns out to be wrong; as soon as she opens her mouth to acknowledge the pattern, we know that it's time for the playwright to bait and switch.

In order to spice up this dreary business, director Carl Forsman induces an ongoing series of mock musical numbers in which the characters lip-synch various songs that comment on the action. Cutely choreographed by Christine Suarez, this amusing schtick helps get us through the play without screaming. It is, however, more than a tad ironic (or should we say perverse) to have Luker, a two-time Tony nominee for Outstanding Actress in a Musical, lip-synching.

Though so much of the play is over the top, the actors cannot be held responsible -- nor can the director. In portraying the boss from hell, Greg Stuhr has no choice but to do so as if he were a Mad magazine depiction of sexual harassment; to underplay the part would make it sinister and creepy, which is not what Reddin is after. The same holds true for the self-absorbed lesbian played by Cheyenne Casebier, who must be an abject lesson in satire; otherwise, we might really care about her feelings, and if we did care, then our heroine would be one cruel bitch to reject her.

Luker, for her part, is given almost nothing to do throughout the play but react to the others with increasing degrees of astonishment and panic. (She does have one nicely wrought monologue near the end that finally allows her to change gears.) Only Brian Hutchison, as the self-effacing stalker, has been handed a more realistic and engaging character; he's entirely up to the task, turning this gentle, insecure, but determined fellow into someone with whom we can sympathize. It's a wonderfully nuanced performance that wrings humor and pathos out of the script by virtue of the actor's offbeat timing, quirky attitude, and sly delivery.

Keith Reddin is as an oft-produced playwright of some distinction. On the basis of Can't Let Go, however, the romantic comedy form has eluded him. Reddin is also a very fine actor and would probably be wonderful if cast in a new romantic comedy -- that is, if only someone would write a good one.

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