The following review is based on the Sunday, November 5th performance when Anita Tellez-Mansy and Jake Gould portrayed Cathy and Sam, respectively, in Life on Mars; Piper Major and Tim Trobec played Bambi and Rork, respectively, in The Invention of Marriage; Tim Trobec depicted the role of Mark in Warning, May Be Hazardous to Your Health; Anthony Backman played Jerry in Two Stones, One Bird; and Corbin Timbrook and Shelby Janes portrayed Larry and Marsha, respectively, in The Waiting Room.
Playwright and director Jeff Gould has continued to make quite the impression with his acute understanding of human psychology in the context of romantic relationships. Produced by Shelby Janes and presented by SkyPilot Theatre Company, the world premiere of Love, Sex, and Misery, which is now playing at the 905 Cole Theatre through December 10th, marks Jeff’s sixth pen-to-paper offering. Once again, humanity’s most relatable subject is dexterously delved into and, this time, the production is written alongside his son Jake Gould and comprised of eight pithy one-acts.
Teeming with an abundance of cackling creativity — with nods to satire, science fiction, distant history, and just topical discussion points — each entertaining act touches on the varying emotional gradients that underscore amorous attachments. Directors Jeff Gould, Morris Schorr, Anthony Backman, Anita Tellez-Mansy, and Sean Dube have woven terrific achievements of mini-plays that simultaneously stand on their own and are also compatible with each other, the most conspicuous motif being a disobedient smoke detector alarm, a through-line narrative device which remarkably sees its own culmination in the final act.
The Bullshit Detector
Ever wonder how gratifying it would be to not only catch a lover’s deceit mid-sentence, but have them momentarily punished for it? The witty Bullshit Detector involves a squabbling couple in Bri Ana Wagner’s Alice and Jason Pierce’s Dave who visit the new-wave Honesty Institute where they wear electromagnetic helmets which harshly buzz when lies are told and dings satisfyingly when deep-seated truths ultimately come out. Jean Fiumara’s Phyllis, a soft-spoken practitioner skilled at getting to the heart of the matter, moderates and makes sense of the couple’s fiery back-and-forth exchanges. Wagner and Pierce share a terrifically believable chemistry, conveying high-voltage pain and enlightened realizations, and Fiumara is hilarious as a soft-spoken authority figure with a possible penchant for voyeuristic sadism.
To Good Friends
What starts as an auspicious clinking of wine glasses takes a wild and morbid turn, except neither sympathy nor tears follow for the individual who has spontaneously departed. The outcome is, instead, an unexpected flurry of spoken-out-loud thoughts on what friends Katie (Bri Ana Wagner), Tom (Domenick DiDiana), and Linda (Olivia Spirz) have really believed about Michael (Ian Nemser). Wagner is again effective at balancing seriousness with farce, DiDiana’s characterizations are an underrated contribution to the piece’s unique mood, Spirz soars in her depiction as a dissatisfied and maltreated wife, and Nemser is spectacular as the attention-seeking husband with an ax to grind. The upshot is that there are really no sides to be taken in a tale that is ingeniously bereft of redeemable characters. Nobody is nice or neat, and sometimes that’s just the way it is in real life.
Life on Mars
This one-act play takes love, and all its peculiarities, from Earth and transplants them onto Mars. Despite certain phrases and norms being inversed, à la “money doesn’t grow on rocks” and heterosexuals being the minority, the overall sentiments are refreshingly the same. Ashley Alva’s Linda and Anita Tellez-Mansy’s Cathy are a couple as are Alexander Hall’s Glen and Jake Gould’s Sam. Much of the political topics that are discussed among Earthlings are similarly bandied among these Martians; however, a normal day in the life begets a surprising revelation following a faux excuse for why two of the four decline an outing. There is much passion exemplified in this one, especially by the frantic Hall whose persona draws comparisons to those who are indiscriminately intolerant. Gould, Tellez-Mansy, and Alva, too, are effortless in helping to actualize an interestingly off-world premise.
The Invention of Marriage
Even in 2347 B.C., men and women in caves found the same reasons to get along or butt heads. In this story, Adam Fox’s erudite Ugg, alongside his significant other in Piper Major’s Bambi, proposes the notion of marriage and monogamy to the dismay of Tim Trobec’s Rork, Amye Partain’s Seebi, Domenick DiDiana’s Kron, and Kriss Dozal’s Loka. Ugg and Bambi implore the other two couples to go their separate ways and find their own pile of rocks to make their home; that said, communal bliss turns to infighting, highlighted by Fox and Major’s characters who are the centerpiece. Whereas modern couples may argue about where one misplaced their socks, in antiquity it may very well have been wooden clubs. The comical one-liners never stop being compelling thanks to Fox and Major, and Trobec is also memorable for making his Rork lovably dimwitted.
Warning, May Be Hazardous to Your Health
Likely taking place in present-day, Barry (Anthony Backman) and Mark (Tim Trobec) are presented an uproarious hypothetical by their buddy Charlie (Ian Nemser) who wonders if it would be worthwhile to stop receiving oral sex from female companions if it were to cause cancer — after all, most things in life that are pleasurable are also harmful to one’s health. Like his preceding character Rork, Trobec’s Mark again has trouble understanding the concept at hand, oftentimes taking it too literally, asking not-quite-on-the-mark questions that have the intended consequence of amplifying the scene’s hilarity. Furthermore, Nemser has such a command of the dialogue that audience members immediately buy into his persona’s rhetoric, and Backman’s comic delivery augments a three-way repartee that is perhaps the funniest of the one-acts.
Quantum mechanics surmises that, in the event of parallel universes, most realities would be similar but with relatively minute differences that can sometimes have monumental effects. This one-act fleshes out this theory, juxtaposing two versions of Cindy and her husband Pete side by side. One iteration of Cindy (Amye Partain) and Pete (Anthony Backman) are at odds, whereas their Cindy No.2 (Olivia Spirz) and Pete No. 2 counterparts (Jason Pierce) are content with one another. The reasons are subtle, but not any less important, in an earnest portrait that examines the multitude of ways words can be received and processed. Partain and Backman successfully get across their characters’ tumult, and Spirz and Pierce are equally tremendous at evincing a paradoxically mirrored, but notably distinct, reflection.
Two Stones, One Bird
Jerry (Anthony Backman) is cheating on wife Susan (Auri Brown) with Rachel (Kriss Dozal) inside a home with a pet parrot that has heretofore not uttered a single word. Jerry barely anticipates his wife’s sudden arrival, stowing away Rachel, whom he cannot whisk out the door to safety despite distracting his wife. Making matters worse for Jerry is that his bird suddenly squawks “Uh oh!” in a knee-slapping harbinger of what is to come. The tension, teased with de-escalation, crescendos to the fulfillment of the audience which shrieks with instantaneous guffawing as the genuine horror of infidelity intersects with an artful ludicrousness. Backman, Brown, and Dozal depict their parts to perfection, taking the limelight when called upon, but also knowing when to step back so the scene can breathe and blossom.
The Waiting Room
One can empathize with the feeling of helplessness surrounding Corbin Timbrook’s Larry and Shelby Janes’ Marsha, who, for the life of them, cannot comprehend why they’re unable to leave a waiting room occupied by only one other person in Chuck Lacey’s Ted, who is clad in an idiosyncratic red bow and orange sweater. Larry and Shelby remember the prior evening but cannot trace the steps that have led them here, sitting next to the undisturbed Ted who is admittedly not of an alien race but can somehow read words with substantive meaning on a series of blank pages.
After an introspective investigation into what may have transpired, accentuated by a smoke detector which ominously chirps yet again (sound designer Stephen Juhl deserves credit for using the power of sound as fruitfully as he does), the audience is treated to a striking conclusion that pays off a recurring theme and draws an insightful analogy to how and why trivial dustups only intensify into a much graver issue when left unresolved. Suffice it to say, this final one-act bookends the previous seven as poetically as it does because Timbrook and Janes render a palpable urgency in stirring contrast to Lacey who emotes with an extraordinary voice of reason.
Overall, anyone who has ever been attracted to another, loved or been loved, and experienced conflict with a romantic partner will feel heard and understood by the bevy of truisms — many of them, comfortingly hysterical — in Jeff and Jake Gould’s Love, Sex, and Misery. Among the cleverly written and performed eight one-act plays are matters of discourse emanating from various vantage points and motivations, which thoroughly cover the gamut of most lived experiences. Not to mention, Love, Sex, and Misery is a worthy follow-up to Jeff Gould’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Divorce, The Marriage Zone, and his other well-crafted works on the conundrums beleaguering couplings.
Love, Sex, and Misery plays on Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm at the 905 Cole Theatre (at Anthony Meindl’s Actor Workshop) through Sunday, Dec. 10th (there will be no shows on Nov. 25th and 26th). For more information on the production, and to purchase tickets, please visit onstage411.com.