Early in John Kolvenbach’s Love Song — running at the New Haven Theater Company on Chapel Street through Nov. 17 — Beane (Christian Shaboo) is subjected to a personality test by Harry (George Kulp). It’s the type of test that Joan (Susan Kulp), Beane’s sister and Harry’s wife, thinks is silly. The sort of thing, she says, that a bored intern writes to fill space in a magazine, and that everyone else takes too seriously. First question: Someone gives you a wrapped present for your birthday. It’s a box. What do you want to be inside of it — a puppy, a songbird, a bunny, or a baby?
That’s where things go horribly, hilariously wrong.
Beane can’t get on Harry’s wavelength. He can’t get into the frame of mind that it’s just a stupid quiz. “They put a baby in a wrapped box?” he asks. “Who would do that?” He worries that whatever’s in the box would suffocate. Harry and now Joan, who before wasn’t taking the quiz seriously but sees that her brother is agitated, reassure him that everything’s fine. Beane seems to buy it. He picks the songbird.
“That way if it’s dead, at least we didn’t kill the baby,” he says.
Love Song tells the story of Joan and Beane, a sister and brother who have stayed close, though their lives have diverged. Joan is a successful, straight-talking businesswoman, married to Harry, a similarly straight-talking man; their marriage is full of constant verbal sparring that teeters between mutual irritation and foreplay. Beane, on the other hand, hasn’t really been able to get it together, living in a ramshackle apartment with $16 in his wallet, bouncing from job to job. Joan worries, for good reason, that Beane may in fact not be well, that some form of mental illness may lie behind it all.
And then Molly (Jo Kulp) enters the fray, showing up at Beane’s apartment first to rob him, but over time, to love him. She draws him out of his shell. She makes him more confident, even if he’s not at all sure what to do with that confidence. And, as with much else in the play, from characters and situations to wine and cigarettes, it’s fair to ask whether she’s really there.
That may sound like a spoiler, but it isn’t. Love Song’s artifice begins with its language. Harry and Joan are impossibly clever, speaking as no one really speaks. Beane’s non-sequiturs are unrealistically brilliant. And Beane and Molly together riff off each other in increasingly poetic raptures that feel more like hallucinogenic beat poetry than dialogue. The play is, in short, a real theater piece, the kind of thing that wouldn’t work in a novel or a movie but works great on the script’s page — and thanks to deft direction from Margaret Mann and John Watson, also works great on the New Haven Theater Company’s stage.
Much attention has been paid to the timing of lines, making sure that each line carries enough momentum to feel the beat in Kolvenbach’s language. Susan and George Kulp, as Joan and Harry, nearly finish each other’s sentences and fully embody their characters, so that their sparring feels like figure skating and their flirting feels like — well, you know what. Jo Kulp, as Molly, is able to swing her character from menacing to fragile, from moody to ecstatic, and back again with breathtaking speed. Christian Shaboo, as Beane imbues his character with an innocence that doesn’t rob him of his intelligence. He’s a man who knows he doesn’t have his life together, but isn’t willing to give up who he is to make that happen, either.
This approach serves the script’s abundant comedy well and also manages to mine it for something deeper, asking meaningful questions about the dangers of being too settled and not settled enough, about the need to find a balance between stability and spontaneity, to keep the flame of life from burning out, but also not out of control. It’s the kind of play that feels pleasantly unpredictable. About two-thirds of the way through, it was difficult to say how this play was really going to end. Does the end, when it comes, feel a little rushed? Maybe. But it also feels earned in a larger sense, as you find yourself rooting for each character in the play to find the place in the world that they want.
Love Song runs at New Haven Theater Company, 839 Chapel St., through Nov. 17. Visit the theater’s website here for tickets and more information.