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First Nighter: John Cariani's Love/Sick, Brian Dykstra's Selling Out

02/10/2015 12:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

Sometimes playwright John Cariani looks at the world -- actually the worlds of love and relationships -- through rose-colored glasses. Just as often he views those worlds through lenses tinted a middling-to-dark-gray or maybe a jaundiced yellow.

He had all pairs of glasses on for Almost, Maine, his inaugural playwriting appearance, and he's wearing them again in Love/Sick, which consists of nine short two-handed skits. In the production at the Royal Family Performance Space on West 46th Street, he introduces current lovers, ex-lovers and potential lovers, dangling good times before them like carrots on sticks that he then enjoys cavalierly pulling away. In other words, he makes a cogent, sober case for the "sick" side of his title.

In "Obsessive Compulsive," a man (Debargo Sanyal) and a woman (Dee Roscioli) meet as strangers at the supposed "Your Home Supercenter" (as it says on a back wall) and immediately smooch. It's a symptom of their shared obsessive impulsive disorder. They're drawn to each other almost irresistibly but not quite. In "The Singing Telegram," a messenger (Cariani himself) brings Louise (Simone Harrison) a song that doesn't turn out to be the proposal she's expecting. In "What?!?), Ben and Andy (Sanyal, Cariani) have trouble communicating when the former tells the latter that he loves him and the latter can't take in the word "love."

Going through the remaining six synopses -- all nine directed deftly by Chris Henry -- may merely be space consuming, when the message here is that Cariani has his own appealing, if cynical (some might say realistic), way of writing about the subject he spends much time parsing.

Before Cariani is through -- that's to say, throwing cold water on lasting love or even short-lived love -- he's given a somber twist on Stephen Sondheim's "Not Getting Married." He's also gotten around to cheating spouses, to couples conflicted about having children, to two women dividing work and raising their child and to two exes running into each other after their second divorces.

While poking fun at the happily-ever-after notion by means of a strong dose of happily-never-after, Cariani shoots his cockeyed valentines with a quiver full of funny lines. He knows how to keep audiences laughing while passing along disappointing news.

Cariani also knows how to perform his sketches, too. He's quite droll at it, and so are Sanyal, Harrison and Roscioli, who have the charm, intelligence, pathos, dexterity and sex appeal required. It's not an easy task to walk the thin line between humor and sincerity, but from playlet to playlet, that's just what the four of them do, as directed with full understanding of Cariani's delicate balances.

To give Love/Sick added oomph, the skits are interspersed with movement routines often carried out by Jenn Aedo, Rachel Geisler, Stephanie Israelson, Jolina Javier and Schuyler Midgett. Sometimes the entire cast works it. No matter what the combination, the attitude is amusing. It's as if the lithe performers are saying wordlessly, "We're having a great time teaching you some hard lessons, and you're just sitting there taking it."

Speaking of valentines, it's pretty obvious why Love/Sick is opening just before Valentine's Day. Some might view it as a great date-night idea. In some ways, it is. But anyone seeing it, whether dating, betrothed or married, had best be prepared to digest what it's saying.
Those divorced will be the likeliest ones nodding their heads in agreement.
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Mort Sahl, at least in his latest years, would come on stage to slam the political status quo holding a rolled newspaper. The impression he gave was that he would be crafting his acid commentary on the day's headlines. Though he proceeded to lodge hilariously scathing complaints, he never once unfurled the paper he continued to wield.

Sahl came to mind throughout Brian Dykstra's Selling Out, at The Playroom. While he never picks up a newspaper, there are a couple stacks of newspapers on his set (no set designer credited) along with a filing cabinet. Those few accouterments stand in front of a large frayed black-and-grey flag featuring many more than 50 woozy stars.

Just as Sahl could be devastating about the state of the States, so is Dykstra, long one of our most effective political stand-ups. He's been funny on the endlessly disturbing subject for so long that it's a wonder he isn't much better known. Why, an observer might very well wonder, doesn't he have his own Comedy Central half-hour? If Larry Wilmore does, why not this sly-fox guy?

Is it because he's on the Rush Limbaugh and NRA watch lists? Is it because producers worry he might stir problems with Charles and David Koch, whom he goes after in Selling Out, and they might have the squelching effect on him they've had on PBS? Or is it only because he's such an accomplished actor that he likes spending much of his time pursuing that craft?

Whatever keeps him playing small rooms like this one when he deserves a far wider audience in these days when a Republican-dominated Senate and House of Representatives is determined to have its retrogressive way may not have a simple explanation, but that has nothing to do with the bull's eyes he repeatedly hits in Selling Out.

His theme this time is the way money makes the world go around. He starts by pointing out that when Americans meet, the typical first question is "What do you do?" rather than "What do you think?" or "What are you reading?" He points out that the query really means, "How do you make money?"

Directed by Margarett Perry with no punches pulled, he then launches into the much-lamented Supreme Court ruling whereby corporations have been declared people -- "douchebag justices" is one term he uses. Among other things he slams as he roams the stage and occasionally punctuates his diatribes with a well-timed warm smile, is the fight for de-regulation and the mad repudiation of science among factions bent on denying climate warming.

Mad as hell and suggesting he doesn't know how much longer he can take it, Dykstra digresses for a few dimly lighted moments (sound and projections apparently supervised by Joan Racho-Jansen also factor in effectively). He chooses to speak as a so-called Somali pirate, and his defense on the man's behalf ought to give listeners food for thought.

Before he closes, he addresses a friend's contention that artistic creativity and love prove the existence of God. He has no time for that bromide and instead closes with a poem he wrote to explain his own belief about the evolution -- "evolution" being the operative word -- of the love he gallantly wishes for his audience.