Love is in the air these days at CoHo Theatre. But what about that other, less pleasant scent lingering? Oh, that’s just a bit of sick.
Sick, in this case, as a substance rather than a condition. It’s a euphemism in British English for what we might – rather less decorously – call “puke.”
Its presence here, amidst a modest, sweet-hearted two-hander called Midsummer (a play with songs), has to do with the confluence of a wicked hangover, severe tardiness for an important occasion, and some ill-advised physical exertion. But considering that the stuff is merely talked about, not shown, perhaps we can leave it aside for the more palatable aspects of the highly unconventional romantic weekend at the center of this play by David Grieg (with songs by Gordon McIntyre).
The gist of the story is that Bob, an underachieving guy in his 30s who seems best known for his lack of distinguishing features, happens to be in a wine bar at the same time that Helena, a lawyer of questionable personal discipline, has been stood up by her married lover. Impulsively, she offers to share her bottle of wine with him – and the extra drinks, the animal passions, the predictable impediments, the convenient coincidences and the colorful antics take things from there.
The redoubtable Isaac Lamb brings his boyish charm and warm singing voice to the role of Bob, and if you sense a sort of deja vu in watching Lamb play an over-imbibing Brit falling awkwardly into love, you’re thinking of Kiss Me Like You Mean It, from the fall of 2010, back when Third Rail Rep put on its shows in the World Trade Center Theater.
Though the larger Winningstad Theatre downtown is the company’s main home these days, this is the second Third Rail show in a row staged in the cozy CoHo. The recent Gideon’s Knot was a remarkably taut drama bristling with big ideas and tough emotions; Midsummer, well, isn’t.
The play’s most distinguishing feature is the way nearly all of it is delivered over, across and through the Fourth Wall. That is, the two characters enact their story in a piecemeal fashion as they mostly tell it directly to the audience, as though they were especially gifted raconteurs relating it to you over a pint in a pub. For instance, this is how Bob places himself in an early scene: “Black beer in front of him, black thoughts inside of him, reading a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground to cheer himself up.”
There’s something charmingly self-conscious yet open about this as a narrative style, and it fits the sense we get from the outset that we’re watching a couple tell us the unlikely yet magical tale of how they met and fell in love. And since the magic Greig conjures for these two involves car theft, petty gangsters, an obsessive-compulsive child, profligate spending, a sommelier, a gaggle of goth teens, busking with songs by the Jesus and Mary Chain, and an entirely un-sexy bondage scene, perhaps honesty really is the best policy.
The shaggy-dog style of both the action and the telling call for a little breathing room from time to time, and the interludes of McIntyre’s unassuming folk-pop songs – which have Lamb and co-star Cristi Miles strumming guitars and/or ukuleles as they sing – provide just such rhythmic and tonal variation.
The problem, though, is the songs themselves, which sound like wan facsimiles of the Proclaimers and don’t add much to our understanding of the emotional journeys of Bob or Helena, or of lovers in general. As a lyricist, McIntyre seems to have missed the lesson that universality comes from specificity (or at least from an artful blend of specificity and ambiguity), not from generalities. And melodically, the few tunes on offer are simply too bland to bear all the repeated reprises. Having the actors turn and sing straight to us may be meant to increase our emotional connection with them, but instead eventually becomes a bit of a bore.
As for the main story, director Philip Cuomo stages it with a breezy energy but still is hamstrung by its inherent shortcomings. For one, even as likeable an actor as Miles is unable to make the vaguely dissolute but otherwise under-written Helena into a character we really pull for. More importantly, while there’s plenty of entertainment value in the couple’s wild romp around Edinburgh, what Grieg shows us is Bob and Helena each coming to see each other as an escape route from their personal dead ends; and that might well be the basis of a relationship, but it’s not quite enough like love.
Or maybe it’s love still carrying a whiff of sick.
Third Rail’s Midsummer continues through April 19 at CoHo. Ticket and schedule information are here.