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'LOVE/SICK' Charms with Surprising Love Stories

John Cariani’s ‘Almost, Maine’ sequel lights up the off-Broadway stage.

Photos by Russ Rowland

In 2004, John Cariani wrote and premiered what would soon become a ground-breaking play about love and loss in the rural north, Almost, Maine. This series of short plays has quickly become one of the most-produced shows in America, especially amongst high schools and colleges. And now, after a variety of other gigs as an actor and playwright, what's next for Cariani? A sequel.

LOVE/SICK is Almost, Maine updated for the year 2015. Where the 2004 show featured ten short romantic scenes interspersed with musical interludes and the Northern Lights, and was revolutionary enough for its quirky humor and inclusion of one story of same-sex attraction, LOVE/SICK is an "alternate suburban reality" with all of the problems of today. There are iPhones and "studies" read on the Internet, married queer couples and a horde of chipper "SuperCenter" employees singing and dancing through the scene transitions.

This is lovesick in suburbia.

Like its predecessor, LOVE/SICK is cute. Not in a bad way, but that genuine sweetness as each couple discovers love growing or fading away isn't something we get to see on stage very often anymore. The sequence of plays takes us chronologically through a relationship, from first encounter through marriage, children and everything falling apart—though the individual characters change, the overall emotional journey stays the same.

Also like Almost, Maine, this play is set up to be performed by up to eighteen actors, not including the dancers, but can be put on with as few as four, as is the case in this production. The implications are clear: these people could be anyone or everyone, though with only a few performers they begin to fall into types that each actor represents. Debargo Sanyal, for instance, excels in the role of the forward, somewhat oblivious man, while Simone Harrison is the overexcited romantic and Dee Roscioli the quirky but dominant partner.

Due to injury, the fourth actor intended to be in this production, Justin Hagan, is currently unable to perform, and filling in for him is playwright John Cariani himself. Cariani plays the sensitive, insecure men of LOVE/SICK to perfection, and in doing so provides a hint at what may have motivated him to write these plays in the first place. Each short play is a study into what makes relationships tick, what makes love succeed or fail, as each lovesick soul tries to work it out for themselves.

Each of the nine plays in the cycle revolves around a central conceit or theme, from "The Singing Telegram" to losing oneself, both figuratively and literally, amongst the boxes in the garage after parenthood. And while a few of them border on the gimmicky--a pair of "obsessive impulsive" people who can't help but fall in love with each other at first sight, or a man struck with temporary deafness any time he hears the words "I love you"—others are all too commonplace. The piece also does a fantastic job tricking you into not paying close enough attention to details, and before you know it, the answer to "What did you have for lunch, at the luncheon?" is "Sex."

My favorite plays out of the set are "Forgot," the story of a couple that forgets to have a baby, and "Uh-Oh," about potentially lethal boredom in early marriages—and we mean that literally. While each features a woman who could be considered "hysterical," her concerns are the point of the scene, and are both utterly hilarious and at the same time completely real. Only in the world of LOVE/SICK can it be a serious question, "What if when I got bored, I killed? I killed you."

Of course, that degree of absurdity is nothing compared to the cadre of perky, uniformed SuperCenter employees who sing their hearts out during every scene transition. With original music and lyrics by Chris Henry, Barton Kuebler and Lars Jacobsen, there is no moment for quiet contemplation between the plays. Instead, there is the sensory overload of a superstore.

LOVE/SICK features a sleek and modern set design for a world where everything else is frozen in time. Maybe that is the value of choosing a specifically suburban locale for the plays; in some sense, nothing ever changes, so all time exists at once. But LOVE/SICK is a play both about suburbia itself and about eighteen individual people, each trying to make their way through love and heartbreak.

Is it the revolutionary 21st century update to Almost, Maine that some may have hoped for? Maybe not, but it is an entertaining and thought-provoking epilogue to a beloved series of plays, and certainly worth seeing for that.

LOVE/SICK plays at the Royal Family Performing Space at 145 W. 46th Street through February 24.

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