Let’s begin with a simple observation about the new Roundabout dark comedy “Love, Love, Love”: Not since George and Martha drained gin by the bottle in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has quite so much liquor been consumed on a stage.
Most of the boozing in this acidic and absorbing New York premiere from quick-witted Brit playwright Mike Bartlett (“King Charles III”) is done by Amy Ryan, the Oscar and two-time Tony Award nominee, as a carefree student and, later, parent, named Sandra.
In Bartlett’s three-act, two-intermission play—directed by Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” etc.)—Sandra ages 40 years, but the drinking never stops. She makes Martha look like a teetotaler.
“Love, Love, Love” is a surprising piece with an unusual structure, anchored by a reliance on popular music of the generations it depicts. Beatlemania is a subtext in the first act, which ends without any real clue about where Bartlett is going (comedy? drama?) or which characters are coming back.
At first it seems our focus will be on Henry (Alex Hurt, of Lincoln Center’s “Dada Woof…”), a stern laborer anticipating a date with Sandra. Henry is letting kid brother Kenneth (Richard Armitage) crash at his flat, and Kenneth doesn’t want to leave just because Henry’s having a girl over.
Older brother’s worst fears materialize when he steps out for a few minutes and returns to find Kenneth and Sandra in an embrace.
The next act flashes forward 20 years. Kenneth and Sandra are married, with two teens, Jamie and Rose (Ben Rosenfield and Zoe Kazan), and a bad case of middle-age malaise. The third and final act brings mom and dad, now divorced, together again with the kids, another generation later.
So … is it better to be born smart, or lucky? That’s the question I found myself coming back to in the days after “Love, Love, Love,” which finally proves to be making a point—and asking hard questions—about entitlement, fortune and circumstance.
Neither Kenneth nor Amy are going to make it into Mensa, but their lives turned out OK. How much of that is simply a function of their times, when people could rely on pensions and golden handcuffs? Are their children, whose lives are far more stalled than the selfish parents, doomed to a more meager existence, simply by virtue of their birthdate?
And is it reasonable for the kids to be angry or aimless because of that?
Ryan is marvelous as a free-loving, free-wheeling adult who grows old, but doesn’t grow up. We should dislike Sandra. The woman feels no guilt about putting her own needs first in every relationship. But Ryan’s too good: She makes irresponsibility look interesting.
Armitage is charming as a slacker just a shade more self-aware than his wife. Kazan bubbles and boils as the only member of the family who worries about anything, and it’s her actions in the third act that tie things together and help distinguish “Love, Love, Love” from messier fare.
Scene designer Derek McLane nails the difficult task of making three static rooms exude the details of their respective decades. “Love, Love, Love” left me both amused, and consumed by thoughts about fortune and fate. This marks two seasons in a row with an engaging and fast-paced play by Mike Bartlett on our shores.
“Love, Love, Love,” through Dec. 18 at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W 46th St. Tickets: $88-$99. Call 212-719-1300.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn