Love is perhaps the most universal and constant through-line in literature and drama, so it's not surprising that three very different shows that opened this week deal with it in depth from the joys of young love to the bitter resentment that grows as it matures and even the heartache sustained when that love is unrequited.
Itamar Moses' whip-smart new play, Completeness, focuses on a computer scientist, Elliot (Karl Miller) who falls for a very cute if guarded molecular biologist, Molly (Aubrey Dollar), who's more comfortable examining life under a microscope than face-to-face. She's a recent transfer to Elliot's grad school, and he takes immediate notice. It's an attraction his algorithms couldn't predict and neither can his shrill (but also cute) girlfriend, Lauren (Meredith Forlenza), another computer scientist who enjoys long walks on the beach and excruciating mind games to gauge Elliot's loyalty and devotion. One of the these pushes him too far, and he breaks up with Lauren, almost immediately landing in Molly's arms after he creates a program to understand her research data. It's such delightfully nerdy love that we never want it to end, and other playwrights would be tempted to leave it at that. Moses, however, has something more heartfelt and painfully real ahead for these star-crossed lovers and manages to drag us through an emotional minefield and come out the other side feeling both exhausted and fulfilled.
Stephen Sondheim puts these feelings to song in the stunning revival of Follies, his ode to faded dreams. Set in an old follies theater on the eve before it's torn down, Sally Durant Plummer (Bernadette Peters) and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Jan Maxwell) return along with other performers and the staff of the theater to relive the glory days of staging their elaborate numbers that lifted spirits but also glossed over the complexities of life. Their husbands and lives have disappointed them and their desires have morphed and perhaps blurred over time, but there's still a lot of fight left in these girls, perhaps best exhibited by Phyllis as she answers her husband's question of divorce in "could I leave you?". In just a few minutes, Sondheim artfully articulates the inherent contradictions of loving someone for such a long period of time, and Jan Maxwell hits each beat flawlessly. In a cast of pros that includes knockout performances by Broadway vets Ron Raines and Danny Burstein, Ms. Maxwell's the thrill of the show. Fiery, beautiful, broken, sometimes all at once. She embodies all of these contradictions with such ease it's almost frightful. The whole production, directed by Eric Schaffer has an eerie quality, highlighted by the sequined and statuesque girls he perches like ghosts high above the action. Act one is moving, but act two is when everything explodes as Sondheim turns the follies funhouse mirrors on the most personal hopes and dreams of his characters. Burstein's rendition of Buddy's folly, "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" that dives into explaining the inherent illogic of desiring people like other people.
This could practically be the jam of Jake Barnes (Mike Iverson), the narrator and protagonist who's hopelessly in love with a stunning but eternally unavailable woman, Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor), in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which is currently receiving a spirited staging as The Select by Elevator Repair Service at the New York Theatre Workshop.
The company, helmed by John Collins, presents large chunks of the famous novel on stage with minimal props and scenery to grand effect. The four hours fly by as we witness Jake's misadventures with Brett and their friends in Paris and then Madrid, where they're drawn to the bull fights that share a similar brutality to Brett's frequent and fleeting coupling. A rich musical landscape created by Matt Tierney and Ben Williams draws on music that spans the many decades from the 20's when the play is set through the present, highlighting the universality of Hemingway's painful love story.