Turn On Your Heartlight
The odd title of Richard Laub's The Seat Between, premiering at The Little Room Downstairs Theater, comes from a story Laub tells far into the second act: He's sitting in a movie house, settling in just before the previews start, when in walk two men. They are strangers to him, but he watches with fascination as they sit down together in the dark theater, leaving a seat between them. This "seat between" becomes the central image in Laub's tender and sentimental one-man musical about his own struggle with loneliness and the seeming impossibilities of love. For love and loving require a great leap of faith, an open-handed willingness to reach out across the dark gap of fears and insecurities that keeps us from connecting with each other.
Of course, without the help of our parents, we wouldn't have all those deep-seated fears. So what better way for Laub to begin his autobiographical tale than as a kid, snuggled up with dear old Mom and Dad. Unfortunately, in Laub's world, neither Mom nor Dad was exactly the snugly type. Mom is the sort of smart-cookie, middle-class kind of girl who was born 20 years too early. She should have gone to college and then on to corporate stardom; instead, she ends up a wife and mother trying to do the best she can with very few mommy skills. In the tune "It's Not a Doll," Laub imagines his mother musing over her child. "What do you do with babies?" she sings. "Who am I kidding? I'm not a mother."
Dad, on the other hand, is a true man of his era, a big, teamster jock, who calls his son "Big Boy," even though Big Boy is the sort of child who chooses band over football and makes wicked-deep declarations to his friends, such as "I want to die because death is perfection." His father just shakes his head at his alien son, saying, "He doesn't know where he came from."
After the damage done by parents comes the crush of young love. Thomas is Laub's best friend and schoolboy dream. Buds through thick and thin, they do everything together; everything, that is, except get physical. In fact, when Laub tells his mother he thinks he's in love with Thomas, the second thing she does, after screaming, is demand to know if anything "physical" has gone on. Laub's song "Tom" is a sugary, too sentimental tribute to his chum. In fact many of Laub's tunes (he wrote the music and lyrics to most every song, as well as the script) drip with too much gooey sweetness.
This is not true, however, of "No Neverminds," about Laub's first bitter breakup. After he has gone off to college, fallen in and out of love with a woman and finally met the man of his dreams, he gets his heart soundly trounced and learns the hard way that too much disclosure too soon can drive love away. Finding the right balance between poignant longing and vitriolic bitterness, "No Neverminds" is a woeful homage to the ironies of love. "Nobody's Home," perhaps the best tune of the night, is in the same sweet and sad vein. Punning on the idea of going home alone, Laub explores the way such loneliness can hurt so bad and so deep that you feel utterly dead inside.
All sorts of strange characters move through the night. But none is more loopy or fully realized than the oddball stalker Cameron. After finishing college with a theater degree, which his father imagines will make him nothing more than "a well-educated janitor," Laub hits the big city: "I came to Houston to be gay." He ends up with Cameron, a 50-year-old man (Laub is in his twenties at this point in the play) who bears an unfortunate tic in his left eye, runs his business like a prison camp and falls head over heels into obsessive love with Laub. Camping out on Laub's lawn, climbing his fence and phoning endlessly, he makes for some of the funniest and most winning moments of the show.
Of course this is a one-man show, and thus, it is Laub who finds a way of inhabiting all his characters. He also uses a series of lamps and candles as stand-ins for the various loves of his life. Director Jimmy Phillips moves Laub around the tiny Little Room stage switching on one lamp after another as he rushes forward through his life. Mom is a curvy, silver, mod fixture that appropriately hangs over the entire show. Dad is a clumsy, avocado green monster that falls over on its side early in the first act. Laub never picks it up. His first girlfriend, Susan, is a tiny fish that makes a pink glow on his stand-up piano. And his first live-in boyfriend, who just "hangs around" for two years, is a useless blue bulb hanging from the ceiling. This conceit is admittedly a little forced, but the idea that love lights up our lives is clear, and the lamps really do seem to fit the characters he creates.
The Seat Between is a show that works in spite of its sometimes maudlin take on love and loneliness. A little bit self-indulgent and very sentimental, the show is moving in the end, its message heartfelt.
The Seat Between runs through February 12 at The Little Room Downstairs Theater, 2326 Bissonnet, (713)522-5737. $12-$15.
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