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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Cariani and Dee Roscioli.
Photo by Russ Rowland

You "fall" for someone just as you "fall" ill. Palpitations, weak knees, and swooning tend to be seen as positive when you like someone. And when a good relationship goes south, "heartbroken" is usually the first word that comes to mind. Given how we tend to equate affection with debilitating health conditions, it's hardly surprising that, with his play Love/Sick, John Cariani makes the notion literal.

After all, much the same was the raison d'être of his best-known and most-produced work, Almost, Maine, a strange-sweet spin on rural romance that was first done in New York in 2006. But as is clear from the New York premiere of Love/Sick at the Royal Family Performing Arts Center, quirkiness cuts both ways. Whereas Almost, Maine was optimistic, and frequently fabulistic, in presenting its wacky tales of simmering passions in the frigid Northeast, things here are more somber and not at all dreamlike.

That may make Love/Sick more realistic and relatable for anyone who has stumbled, perhaps violently, in the quest for the perfect partner (which, let's face it, is pretty much everyone), but it also makes it less transporting. As he did with Almost, Maine, Cariani has divided the script into multiple short scenes, each of which details a different couple dealing with joint maladies both physical and emotional.

Even over the course of merely 80 intermissionless minutes, that many stories of loss and failure, with only the occasional (marginally) redemptive interlude, can become oppressively cynical. Though Cariani, as always, combines his unique perspective on these matters with plain language rather than rote poetry or self-consciously circuitous dialogue (à la the equally creative but more mechanical Will Eno), his brighter and zanier Twilight Zone views on modern dating, mating, and marriage are better suited to comedy than tragedy—and, for better or worse, that's the category to which this effort belongs.

In the first playlet, for example, two shoppers at a Walmart-like Supercenter discover when they collide carts that they're "obsessive impulsives," who must medically fight their innate inclinations to give in to every whim, even going so far as to kiss—more accurately, make out with—every stranger they see. But despite having everything in common, they've been so trained to accept themselves as abnormal that they can't recognize an organic response for what it might be, and that causes years' worth of problems in the first ten minutes or so they're together.

This is a clever start, but that cleverness diminishes when every subsequent scene goes in the same direction: a singing telegram goes hideously awry, hysterical deafness threatens to derail an otherwise perfect match, a man and a woman discover they missed a crucial step on the path to their wedding day, one pair finds their original fire going out while another notices too late that theirs is probably already gone, children cause problems through both their absence and their presence, and two aging through-the-wringer exes learn that trusting others is pretty hard after your second divorce.

It does help that Cariani has structured the evening so as to suggest one complete relationship cycle, letting Love/Sick seem to cover a lot more ground than it technically does. But without an accumulative benefit to the misery most of these 18 people experience, you're investing a lot of time in watching a lot of people go nowhere, and most of their individual stories aren't quite compelling enough to make that particular non-journey anything but frustrating.

Chris Henry's production is also not exactly ideal. It's set in the Supercenter, which serves as an unlikely link between the plays (the set is by Shannon Rednour) and adds an additional chilling effect of cavernousness despite Lucrecia Briceno's upbeat lighting. The songs between many scenes (written by Henry, Barton Kuebler, and Lars Jacobsen), which are danced by five women in Supercenter uniforms (Joann M. Hunter is credited with "movement direction"), function as both quasi-Brechtian commentary and time-killers for switching between Lux Haac's costumes, and disrupt what little flow Cariani's script might have been able to generate.

The cast, though, is on the mark, with Simone Harrison, Debargo Sanyal, and Dee Roscioli all finding a winning balance between their characters' crazy and crushing feelings. The fourth actor, Justin Hagan, was recently injured, and has been temporarily spelled by about the most ideal replacement performer imaginable: Cariani himself.

As Cariani proved when he appeared in Transport Group's Almost, Maine last year, he's his own writing's finest interpreter, capable of melding cool, antic neuroticism with charming warmth, letting him simultaneously exist in both his fantastical world and our sadly real one. His every word and facial tic is overlain with a quixotic hopefulness that transforms the sad and the ecstatic into the most natural of bedfellows. Too often, alas, this ability is wasted on Love/Sick, which is determined to salve pain with laughter the pain doesn't obviously deserve.

Through February 26
Royal Family Performing Arts Space, 145 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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