by Susan Reiter

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 19, 2009

From Left: Felipe Bonilla, John Russo, Laurel Holland Love/Stories (or But You Will Get Used To It).
From Left: Felipe Bonilla, John Russo, Laurel Holland Love/Stories (or But You Will Get Used To It).  

In case we might not be aware of playwright Itamar Moses' lurking authorial presence within his quintet of short plays, Love/Stories(or But You Will Get Used to It), he makes it felt even before the show officially begins. In his wry take on the pro-forma pre-show "turn off your cell phones" announcement, his recorded voice breezily suggests keeping them on, letting anyone who calls know the name of the play we are attending, and offers other increasingly outlandish, mockingly self-serving suggestions, before acknowledging he's gone on too long.

Is it a coincidence that the opening play, "Chemistry Read," deals with a sullen, manipulative playwright? As the 90-minute evening unfolds, two of the overriding themes that link its five disparate works are theatrical gamesmanship, and the messy aftermath of relationships gone sour. Both of these figure strongly in this work, which handily introduces us to all five members of the cast. It also introduces an ongoing concern of the evening: the insular, insecure, needy world of actors.

Two men (John Russo and Michael Micalizzi) audition for a playwright and his director, and amid the requisite exchanges of fawning and dismissal (Moses utilizes the full range of inflections possible when delivering the coded phrase "thank you" in this situation), the playwright reveals his personal agenda regarding the second auditioner. The glances and reactions of Felipe Bonilla (as the playwright) and Maren Langdon (as the oh-so-in-control director), as they forge ahead at cross-purposes, are priceless, as is the sly performance of Laurel Holland as the faceless actress offering her profound gratitude for being asked to read lines with the actors while not being considered for a role. Like the others, she has her own neediness and agenda.

The crisp, nuanced performances the five actors deliver in Moses' opening salvo are sustained throughout "Love/Stories." All are members of The Bats, the Flea Theater's young resident company, and they are supremely disciplined and talented. They get plenty to work with, as the deftly organized evening continues with three playlets for a man and a woman, then winds up with an extended monologue about another two-hander that never gets off the ground. Moses wrote the five plays over the course of several years, but, in Michelle Tattenbaum's crisp, intelligent production, they fit together smoothly and reverberate smartly off each other. She has keyed her staging to the extreme intimacy of The Flea's 40-seat downstairs theater, incorporating rather than avoiding the audience's proximity.

In "Temping," Micalizzi is hilariously understated as a hapless drone overhearing his colleague's tearful post-break-up conversation with her ex. He dutifully collates and staples, a few feet away, as she rapidly loses whatever dignity she intended to maintain. After momentarily registering his presence with disdain, she dials a gal-pal and tearfully recaps the phone call, subjecting him to further involuntary personal intrusion. Moses nimbly captures the kind of pricelessly inarticulate verbiage that passes for conversation these days ("I'm like, what, and he's like what, and I'm like WHAT, and he's like you sound mad"). After admitting that she, too, is a temp at the office, the rejected woman eagerly starts making out with her nebbishy neighbor, then just as suddenly acts like he doesn't exist when she takes a phone call. She's a pathetic but scarily real figure, as skillfully portrayed by Langdon with all her vulnerabilities exposed.

The central play of the five, "Authorial Intent," is by far the most substantial and ambitious, and it finds Moses getting a bit too clever for his own good as he layers on meta-theatrical conceits, scrutinizing and analyzing his own authorial conceits. What appears to be a mundane scene of a couple (Holland and Micalizzi) on the verge of calling it quits (her idea; it's news to him, since he just moved in with her at her suggestion) turns on a dime as the duo step back and recap the scene they just went through in theatrical jargon. With flat, bored tones they identify each moment's "formal device," "objective" as well as "authorial intent." Not only does Moses have them morph from being inside the action to outside it, he then folds in one other layer that allows for a conversation laden with actorspeak.

The man in "Authorial Intent" had returned home from an event where aspiring filmmakers thronged a lecture by a celebrated director, only to be devastated by something the luminary said during the Q&A with his worshipful audience. "Szinhaz," the play which follows, offers a similar event - only with a haughty, revered Eastern European playwright. Bonilla plays him with appropriate darkness and disdain, speaking in what seems to be Russian. The luminous Langdon plays Marie, the reticent member of his theater company who serves as translator. Moses has some good fun with the names of experimental theater companies (one is translated as "The Slow Death of the Human Soul," another as "Time Will Destroy Your Capacity to Love." (The latter could serve as a pithy summation of Moses' overriding themes in these plays.)

Several times, Marie plaintively offers the phrase "he got used to it" in connection with the director's harsh experiences of repression, rejection, abuse. Since this phrase serves as Moses' alternate title for the evening, we might glean a central message here. However awful the things life throws at you, you'll accommodate. "Szinhaz"'s focus veers from the public interaction between Istvan and his audience to the personal agenda between Istvan and Marie, and ends with them suspended at a moment of truth. Is Moses saying these theatrical types can only work out their intimate conflicts in a performance situation?

After Moses brings Istvan and Marie to a quiet, almost poetic stalemate, he concludes the evening with a Reader (Russo) who is actually a playwright endlessly analyzing and second-guessing his intentions and capacities to create a scene with a couple who sit nearby at a table, posed for action that never begins. Part cry of frustration - pity the poor playwright who cannot follow the initial flash of inspiration by fleshing out the scene - and part mind-game, this Untitled Short Play meanders too much to satisfyingly round out the evening. Full of questions and doubts -- and marked by the seeming impossibility of making a connection, of truly understanding what's inside someone else's head -- it does resonate with much that has gone before.

Extended through March 30 at Flea Theater, 41 White Street (betw. Church & Broadway). Tickets $20; (212) 352-3101 or

Susan Reiter is a NYC-based freelance journalist who covers dance for New York Press and writes about the performing arts for The Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Back Stage and other publications.