Samantha Walker and Nick Pinelli in Love/SickEXPAND
Samantha Walker and Nick Pinelli in Love/Sick
Photo by Pin Lim, Forest Photography

Swooning Over Fresh Talent in Love/Sick at Obsidian

Ah, romantic love. Will we ever get tired of obsessing about you? How to get love, how to keep love, fear of its loss, fear of its hold, wishing it never happened, figuring out how to move past it and then how to find it all over again? No matter our race, culture, religion, politics, age or gender, love is the four letter word none of us can seem to censor.

Playwright John Cariani sure can’t. He’s written about it. Nine times. His play, Love/Sick, getting a nifty outing at Firecracker Productions, is a series of nine mini vignette-type plays (about 10 minutes each) that concern different sticky, it may not work out perfectly, aspects of the love relationship. Aspects such as problematic love at first sight, getting dumped, intimacy issues, marital cold feet, relationship ruts, infidelity, ticking biological clocks, the toll of parenthood on couples and whether destiny in love can mean not having it at all.

While the subject matter reads like the contents page of Cosmopolitan Magazine, what elevates Cariani’s sometimes clever and insightful play is that in many cases, the story doesn’t go the way we expect it to. The opening meet cute, grocery store love at first sight narrative pairs two suffers of “Impulse Disorder” – a condition where our two lovers can’t help but say and do whatever pops into their minds. Attraction, in this case, leads to comically epic make-out sessions and declarations of unwavering love followed by apologies, acknowledgment of illness and comparisons of treatment benchmarks. Funny gives way to melancholy as the love lingers unresolved and our curiosity as to what oddness comes next perks up in hopeful alertness.

The breakup scenario that follows doesn’t live up to the hype. Following a sit-comyformula we see coming a mile away, namely the dumping via singing telegram just doesn’t have the same off-kilter bite. We laugh because we know to laugh, not because we’ve been surprised or challenged in any way.

And so goes the play from one mini story to another on a red-hued set (no designer named in the program) that reconfigures smartly to suit each scenario. One moment we’re gifted with gorgeously ingenious stories such as a man at the start of a relationship who is so overwhelmed by his fear of emotion that when his new boyfriend tells him he loves him, he goes deaf to the words. Literally, can’t hear them. Or the story of a couple so disconnected from each other physically, so hungry for intimacy, that they separately go out and have sex for lunch, simply because it was on the menu.

But just when our brains are whirring with these surreal, absurdist, often funny, wonderfully metaphoric send-ups on the realities of love, Cariani throws in a cheaper offering. Cold feet before marriage reads like every rom-com we’ve seen. A lesbian couple buried under the weight of parenthood loses its edge quickly and devolves into a typical losing oneself to child-rearing discussion.

The good news is that while these lesser stories may be unremarkable, they’re mercifully never eye roll worthy. Familiar in this case is palatable as opposed to insulting. The better news by far is this cast (Nick Pinelli, Paige Thomas, Eddie Edge, Samantha Walker, Nolan LeGault and Darin Montemayor all playing multiple roles) is superlative no matter which story they’re telling and are the unquestionable selling points for this production. We may not know it, but we come to see them in action, and once we do, we can’t get them out of our mind.

Of particular note are three relatively new faces to Houston stages. Nick Pinelli’s ability to lift Cariani’s naturalistic-with-a-twist dialogue and bring a certain brand of heartache to the proceedings is in full bloom whether he is playing a man with no impulse control, someone who is afraid yet desperate for love or a clueless husband blindsided and unimpressed by his wife’s yearning for children. Paige Thomas makes anxiety look effortless as she plays it for laughs or for something more serious. Thomas delivers one of the more physical performances of the show and does so with such controlled grace that she literally glides around the set with emotion. Samantha Walker…casting folks take notice….this is a woman to watch. Cast in the less interesting vignettes, Walker nonetheless captures our attention with her ability to go from zero to one hundred on the emotional scale in a matter of seconds. From gleeful over an expected proposal to dejected over being dumped. From to hopeful about children to realizing that her husband wants none. From the joy then sorrow of meeting your ex unexpectedly. Walker’s range and speed of dramatic trajectory is astonishing to watch.

At the nerve center of all these terrific performances is director Kelsey McMillan, a talent already noted in this paper for shepherding young actors to great heights in Firecracker’s production of Becky Shaw last season. Love/Sick has McMillan’s fingerprints all over it. The perfect flow of dialogue that sounds discussed as opposed to performed. The moments of distinctly timed perfect unison between characters. The judicious use of movement that’s purposeful and never window dressing. The seamless act changes. It’s all there in this production and it once again generously allows her cast to shine brightly.

So maybe, in the end, we leave Love/Sick loving the cast more than the play itself. By my calculation, for a 90-minute show, that’s a whole lot of bang for your buck. After all, when is anything to do with love 100 percent rosy?

Performances of Love/Sick continue through March 17 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak For information,  call 832-889-7837 or visit firecrackerproductions.org. $10 to $20.

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