An unwritten rule of playwriting is that at least one of the cast of characters has to be someone the audience pulls for. The veteran playwright Romulus Linney, however, neatly give the lie to that requirement with his consistently intriguing two-hander Love Drunk, now at the Abingdon Theatre, in which neither Wilbur Johnson (Austin Pendleton) nor Karen Bannerman (Kristina Valada-Viars) is especially sympathetic. And while Linney’s purpose is to bring two troubled people together to see if they can break through to each other, what begins as a May-December one-night stand evolves into something far more sinister.
As the two warily circle each other throughout much of the 80-minute work — rarely even alighting on the couple of chairs, the hassock or other furniture set designer Jeff Pajer has provided — you can’t take your eyes off them. As it happens, they can’t take their eyes off each other, either, not once 65-year-old architect Wilbur, who lives in the log cabin atop a windy northwestern Appalachian mountain, has picked up twentysomething drifter Karen at a nearly bar he frequents when he’s temporarily had his fill of aerie solitude.
Or has she picked him up? That fact and others come into question as the couple supply their backgrounds in conversation supposedly preceding a roll in the hay. However, so much of what Wilbur and Karen reveal is possibly untrue that even their meeting by chance may not be an exact description — as Karen suggests in one of her many angry outbursts.
Wilbur, who says he has degrees from Cornell and Columbia, refers often to a wife and son whom he never sees — one in far-flung Florida and one in farther-flung Alaska. He also has an odd penchant for local folk songs and folksingers. Even more peculiarly, Wilbur admits to once engaging in an unnatural sex act with a dog. Karen, who left home at 12, never attended college. Nevertheless, she’s educated herself enough so that she can go head-to-head with Wilbur on subjects as outre as Count Leo Tolstoy. She particularly wows Wilbur when observing he’s planned his cabin so “the sun can look through the house.” Her on-the-road survival skills are also impressive.
Effective as Linney is in keeping attention focused on Wilbur and Karen, without the grade-A direction by Kelly Morgan and subtle acting of the, short slope-shouldered, hesitant-tongued Pendleton and the tall, coltish, sharp-tongued Valada-Viars, Love Drunk could merely pass out. The pair run the gamut of emotions here as if aceing the New York City Marathon.
By the time the lights fade on Wilbur and Karen, they have reached each other, but not in any way the audience sees coming. Undoubtably, that’s Linney’s major achievement.