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True Love

Relationships are twisted. Any form of love is true because it's the only kind of love they -- the characters -- are capable of.
--- Charles Mee
In True Love, his latest exploration of the twisted nature of love relationships, Charles Mee once again tests to the outer limits his theory of freely piggybacking his work on classic Greek plays. This hypothethis, detailed in his memoir, A Nearly Normal Life, is grounded in the fact that these plays weren't original to begin with but based on earlier plays or poems or myths. This non-originality serves as Mee's open sesame to take a classic text and "smash it to ruins, and then atop its ruined structure of plot and character, write a new play, with all new language."

Since True Love has Mee smashing Plato's Symposium, Euripides' Hippolytus and Racine's Phaedra all at once, its staging is a case of the medium attuned to the message. The modernized tales about love relationships are set in an authentically detailed gas station-repair shop where people bring the cars they often invest with passionate commitment for refueling and repair of bent fenders and malfunctioning parts

As Euripides and Plato might be taken aback at what Mee has wrought from the smashed ruins of their work, so those who labored in the zipper factory that's now a theater would be amazed at what has happened to their former workplace. From the moment you pass through the Art Deco doors of the new Zipper Theatre, you're part of the environment. Instead of a convenience store, there's a bar where you can buy beer and pick up free popcorn to take to your seat -- either a two-seater scavenged from the ruins of an old car or one of those plastic-upholstered benches found in garage waiting rooms.

Director Daniel Fish has taken Mee's reconstructed classic and further transformed it into a sort of grunge vaudeville, that includes a real garage band and a vintage red Dodge which serves multiple purposes, including the inevitable Greek tragedy climax -- and, at one point, a live chicken and a sensuous nude dance. Given that you're more or less part of the setting, the whole experience is bit like being at one of those big old outdoor movie lots but with everyone sitting together in one giant car.

So much for the atmosphere. What those Greek-inspired stories? The central plot thread builds on the Phaedra story of the stepmother who, in her husband's absence, seduces his young son. The stepmother in this case is Polly (Laurie Williams) whose married lover, Richard (Roy Thinnes) has been gone to parts unknown for over a week. That leaves her angry and lusting after his son Edward (Jeremiah Miller), an angelic looking and resistant to her charms teenager who enters the garage on roller skates. Mee wrote this role for the sultry blonde Williams, who was (at least for a while) his own true love.

When Edward is not skating he lounges around a platform bed listening to a radio call-in show which, besides prompting some of the commentary, also fills in plot strands. It is the Symposium monologues about love that yield the most interesting performances from an ensemble that includes a cross-dressing beautician (Paul Mullins), a mechanic (Dallas Roberts) who gets his thrills from an auto battery and his supervisor (Christopher McCann) who gets people to squash pies, first in his face and then in his groin. (To prove that he can make willing partners out of the reluctant he enlists an audience member who did indeed double pie him).

My favorite members of this Greek chorus were Laura Esterman and Jayne Houdyshell, as Shirley and Bonnie. Shirley calls in to the radio show to give her view on love which leads to her marriage which began as a pickup that made her more nauseated than passionate -- but, since the man tenderly ministered to the sick feelings he prompted, she married him. This is the first of repeated variations on the theme that love is about more than having sex -- good, or otherwise. Bonnie, to whom a man is, among other things, "a vibrator with a wallet", has one of the funniest monologue about her "non vanilla" sex life. Her penchant for spanking seems a favorite obsession, including even a young nymphet (Halley Wegryn Gross) who competes with Polly for Edward's body. Her deep-throated rendition of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" is one of the most entertaining musical interludes.

As various characters deliver their solos, the ensemble either does odd shtick things like blowing bubbles or eating hungrily out of a dog food dish or sits frozen, a bit like The Iceman Cometh. Entertaining as all this is, it also veers to the bizarre and purists are likely to shudder at some of the directorial extravagances as well as Mee's reconstructed deconstruction. This calculated spin on the classics definitely requires a taste for things edgy.

Whatever your tastes, and the title notwithstanding, you'll leave this unusual new theater still wondering "What Is This Thing Called Love?"

Our review of Big Love, the play that completes this season's love plays, will be posted early next week. In the meantime here links to other Mee Plays we've reviewed:
First Love

True Love
Written by Charles Mee.
Directed by Daniel Fish.

Cast (in order of appearance): Laurie Williams, Jeremiah Miller, Laura Esterman, Paul Mullins, Christopher McCann, Jayne Haudeyshell, Dallas Roberts, Halley Wegryn Gross, Roy Thinnes,
Musicians: Crispin Cioe (musical director-- keyboards, saxophone, vocals), George Gilmore (guitar, vocals), Charlie Giordano (keyboards, accordion), Robin Gould III (Drums) Set Design: Christine Jon
Costume Design: Kay Voyce
Lighting Design: Jane Cox
Sound Design: Rob Kaplowitz
Musical Staging : Peter Pucci
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission
Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th St. (8th /9th Aves) 212/ 239-6200
From 11/26/01; opening 11/28/01.
Tue-Fri @8PM, Sat @4PM, 7PM & 10PM, Sun @4PM --$25-$55 Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 26th press preview
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