'The Love List': Theater Review

Ed Krieger
A limp mounting of Norm Foster’s dated comedy about the futility of creating the perfect woman. 

John Combs, Jennifer Laks and Martin Thompson star in Norm Foster's comedy about trying to find and create the perfect woman.

“One of the curses of being a playwright is that you’re never ever satisfied with the finished product,” Norm Foster, Canada’s most prolific playwright, once said. If he was saying it about his 2003 comedy, The Love List, he might have been in the audience, as this creaky relic feels more like a product of the Mad Men era than a play that’s only 11 years old. Foster is commonly compared to Neil Simon for his light-hearted accessibility and focus on minor tribulations, but if The Love List is any indication, he lacks Simon’s insight into human foibles as well as the emotional heft that often anchors his comedy. While Foster is Canada’s most produced playwright (40 plays since 1983), it’s important to remember sometimes more is less.

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Bill (played by John Combs) is a lonely statistician living in a sloppy New York City apartment. His best friend, Leon (Martin Thompson), a philandering novelist, has just the thing to jolt Bill out of his middle-age funk – a gift membership to a dating service, only this is not just any dating service but one that guarantees a 100 percent satisfaction. All Bill has to do is list his ten most desirable attributes in a mate and Leon will drop it off with the mysterious gypsy woman who gave it to him.

While much of the first scene consists of the guys compiling the list — oral sex, number four, right up there next to “enjoys kissing me” — Bill is wrapped up in the memory of his wife, Justine (Jennifer Lee Laks) , who left him because he’s a bore. In a badly written monologue, he recalls a two-week visit to Ireland and, “the breeze blowing through her hair.”

Moments later, Bill is visited by a woman, also named Justine, who acts as if they’ve been living together for years. Though taken aback, he finds her attractive, inviting, smart, confident — everything he listed the night before. Stranger still, she seems to know everything about him.

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As Bill, Combs excels in a demanding roll that requires humor, introspection and a hint of pathos, as well as unbridled joy. Laks has to change behavior on a dime as the guys keep adding to and erasing from the list, but even more impressive is her weirdly alienating sexual allure befitting her supernatural origins.

In time, Bill learns that list entries such as “speaks her mind” can result in her instructing him on foreplay and requesting he take a little longer to finish. “Tidy” results in her (gasp!) cleaning up all the messy stacks of his research material leaving him lost in his data. So how will Bill and Leon fix the perfect woman to make her even more perfect?

It seems like a question better suited to an era of casual sexism. Foster’s sitcom quality writing is strangely outdone by ex-sitcom director Howard Storm (Mork & Mindy) who leads his cast with expert comedic timing but remains hamstrung by the material.

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Unfortunately Martin Thompson is sorely miscast as a lothario and shamelessly overacts, chewing Jeff Rack’s exemplary scenery all the way into the wings.

When Bernard Shaw mined Greek myth to write Pygmalion, he wisely inserted social class between Doolittle and Higgins, giving his play a broader context. Lerner and Loewe added music and dance when they made My Fair Lady, which became a movie classic by George Cukor. Unfortunately Foster subtracts music, lyricism, Shaw’s keen ear for dialogue, his trenchant social themes, his elegant and unforced plotting, as well as his sensitivity to character in order to give us The Love List.

Venue: Theatre 40, Beverly Hills (runs through June 20)

Cast: John Combs, Jennifer Laks and Martin Thompson

Director: Howard Storm

Playwright: Norm Foster   

Set designer: Jeff G. Rack

Lighting designer: Ric Zimmerman

Sound designer: Bill Froggatt

Costume designer: Michele Young

Presented by David Hunt Stafford