Baby boomers may wish to avoid Mike Bartlett’s 2010 drama, which is receiving its New York premiere courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company. Depicting the shifting lives of a couple and their two children from the late 1960s to the present day, this work delivers a lacerating portrait of a terminally self-obsessed generation. But lest you think the playwright is being too harsh on them, rest assured that the millennial characters in Love, Love, Love aren’t very appealing, either.
The playwright, Tony-nominated last season for his political fantasia, King Charles III, here manages the neat trick of making us relate to his characters while not particularly liking them. It’s a testament to his gifts for incisive characterization, pungent comic dialogue and astute social commentary.
Despite its decades-long timeframe, nothing particularly dramatic occurs in the three-act play. The first part takes place in 1967 in the North London flat of 23-year-old Henry (Alex Hurt), who’s just returned home after a hard day at work. His brother Kenneth (Richard Armitage), a university student on break, is absorbed in a live television broadcast featuring The Beatles. Henry is none too pleased to see his handsome younger brother lounging around half-naked, especially since his younger girlfriend, Sandra (Amy Ryan), is on her way.
When Sandra does arrive, it soon becomes clear that she and Kenneth are kindred free spirits. The physical attraction between them is palpable. When Henry goes out briefly to pick up some fish and chips, they get physical, fully aware, but not really caring, that Henry is bound to catch them.
The second act, set in 1990, reveals that the liaison was more than a fling. Sandra and Kenneth are now married and comfortably well-off, the parents of Rose (Zoe Kazan), who’s about to celebrate her sixteenth birthday, and 14-year-old Jamie (Ben Rosenfeld). The charged interactions among the family members demonstrate that the marriage is on the skids and that they, as well as their children, can barely relate to one another.
By the time Kenneth and Sandra come together in the third act, set in 2011, their lives have been altered by death and divorce, though they still seem quite happy, even flirtatious with each other. But the children, now in their thirties, are the worse for wear. Slacker Jamie is obsessed with video games, and Rose, once an aspiring violinist, can barely support herself even while her parents live comfortably on their pensions. When they refuse to buy her a house, Rose responds bitterly, blaming them and their entire generation for her problems.
“You got your cheap flights and your nice cars but never looked at what they were doing to the environment, you hate immigrants, love The Daily Mail, voted in Thatcher, destroyed the unions, reduced taxes, Tony fucking Blair,” she rants.
While American audiences may not fully appreciate some of the specific British references, they certainly will understand the sort of societal splits that can divide generations. And though Bartlett’s younger characters come across as more than a little whiny, the playwright reserves his larger scorn for those members of the preceding generation that squandered the message implicit in the title — taken from The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” — in favor of selfishness and materialism. The indictment seems a bit too sweeping, but the arguments are entertaining.
The lead performers skillfully handle the difficult assignment of playing characters over several decades, even if they’re not always fully convincing in every incarnation. Ryan, sporting a garish wig, may be straining to play the 19-year-Sandra, but she delivers such an emotionally vital performance throughout that it hardly matters. Armitage is excellent as well, while Hurt, Rosenfield and Kazan make vivid impressions in their less developed roles.
Director Michael Mayer’s faultless staging of the complex, time-shifting proceedings is further enhanced by Derek McLane’s multiple sets and Susan Hilfterty’s period-perfect costumes.
By the end of the evening, you will inevitably have that famous Beatles refrain in your head. And while Love, Love, Love is not quite as profound as it intends to be, there’s an awfully lot in it to, well, love.
Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Richard Armitage, Alex Hurt, Zoe Kazan, Ben Rosenfield, Amy Ryan
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Director: Michael Mayer
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company