THE MAINSTAGE is still making the same old mistake.
It's impossible to appreciate the considerable amount of fine acting and fine direction in the Loeb's production of Love's Comedy unless you consider the massive obstacle the company saddled itself with at the start the play. As so often happens the ambition to tackle something obscure and new, which can lead to great triumphs has proved slightly misdirected Henrik Ibsen's work in general, is neither forgotten nor unappreciated. But his ninth play, Love's Comedy a sort of satiric comedy of manners is obscure for a reason.
Vastly unlike most Ibsen in both plot and style, Love's Comedy traces the romance between the young poet Falk (Adam Swift) and the rebellious and idealistic Svanhild (Caroline Isenberg). Around them, innumerable friends and relatives are becoming engaged--and, soon thereafter, seeing all the light and joy drain from their relationships. Falk spends most of his time vehemently denouncing these engagements and marriage in general, but soon finds himself falling prey to his own emotions Svanhild, for her part, in choosing between Falk and another suitor, must weigh the conflicting claims of freedom, a "perfect" and fleeting romance, and social convention.
Unfortunately, these themes unfold amid only the barest trappings of dramatic action. Falk, Svanhild, and their social circle, consisting of the various engaged couples and suitors plus an assortment of guests and maiden aunts, simply sit around philosophizing and arguing in a sort of endless garden party. Some pleasure derives from the garden designed by Fred Weber, and intricate structure of terraced platforms and bridges on which speakers leap about, separating and meeting again. But no amount of creative tinkering with platforms can convert these endless wranglings over marriage versus love, friendship versus faithfulness, adventure versus obligation, into a satisfying evening of theatre. Instead, the effect is something like that of bad Shaw--without the rapier wit.
The lameness of the dialogue--much of it in stylized rhyme--suggests another problem stemming from the script's unpopularity--bad translation. Though program notes refer the Jens Arup translation to a 1962 edition of Ibsen, the play's diction betrays all the self-conscious "translationese" of the turn of the century--even to the using the word "poesy" for "poetry" here and there. Faced with the need to make lines like "Can you not re-weld the link you tore asunder?" and "Am I to hallmark your complacency?" sound natural, director Holly Swartz takes the logical strategy of stylizing the actors' motion and delivery to match the tone. This works in spots, but it cannot keep things moving for two and a half hours. The weight of verbiage is simply too great.
LIKEWISE, individual performances, however strong, cannot carry the entire evening--but the company does succeed in creating some startlingly effective scenes when the script gives them the chance. What momentum the play has comes largely from Adam Swift's vivid and energetic portrayal of Falk. Swift's stage presence and timing, even on the lamest dialogue, are remarkable; they lend enough conviction and pathos to his love affair to set the show eventually lumbering on its way. Caroline Isenberg as Svanhild, though more subdued and occasionally sappy in her delivery, ably matches him; the endless philosophical platitudes the two exchange, though hopelessly unworkable as drama, occasionally take on the magic of the characters' passion.
Fortunately, the only other character called upon for extended philosophical declamation is equally strong. Peter Sagal as Guldstad, the considerably older rival for Svanhild's attentions, acquits himself beautifully in the play's crucial monologue, an analysis of marriage which on Friday night clocked in at a solid ten minutes.
Most of the other characters--a brightly-dressed flutter of engaged, soon-to-be-engaged, and married couples--alternate between stiffness and competence, depending on how much artificial language their characters spew out. The ones intended to be irritating (Curt Raffi and Jennifer Burton) achieve a bit more success in such instances than the ones who are merely sweet (David Angel and Laurence Bouvard), but this, too, is only partly blameable on the actors. Children in bright dresses, tuneful incidental music by Brooks Whitehouse, and lederhosen all around contribute to the impression of a light and pleasant entertainment, the "comedy" of the title, through which the production meanders with verbose leisure.
AND THE PLAY'S final surprise--the revelation, in the final minutes, that this lightness was false all along--may offer a clue to the total imbalances of both production and script. That part of the audience which hung on until the end gets the payoff of a genuinely moving conclusion--the assurance that somewhere in the morass of stylization there was a story worth remembering. If the theatregoer is patient, not too sleepy, and willing to work, the evening is by no means a theatrical dead loss. Swartz and her company have coaxed a good deal out of this literary curiosity, perhaps as much as they possibly could have retrieved without drastic retranslation and even more drastic cutting. But one is disposed to frustration because such efforts and talent, applied elsewhere, would have achieved so much more. It's a shame when mainstage mystique and mainstage selection pressures induce mainstage directors to make things so difficult for themselves.