Luv in the Time of Gender-Bending 

Actors Ensemble offers straight, gay, and lesbian versions of the same love story.

With its absurdist take on romance and infidelity, Murray Schisgal's play Luv may have seemed a little off the beaten path when it debuted on Broadway in 1964. The play opens with a surprise reunion of two college friends, the striver Milt Manville and slacker Harry Berlin, who is down on his luck and about to jump off a bridge. After an unusual, rambling conversation, Milt persuades Harry to hook up with his wife Ellen so that he can shack up with his mistress, Linda. An odd and perilous love triangle precipitates. By 1964 standards it may have been hilarious, yet in today's hook-up culture, the script seems dated. It takes a fairly ambitious director to shore up the old humor and give it a new edge.

Enter Alan Barkan, who came up with the idea of staging three versions of Schisgal's play — a gay Luv story, a lesbian Luv story, and a straight Luv story — in a new production by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley. Barkan apparently came up with the idea after measuring Luv against Schisgal's screenplay for the 1982 film Tootsie, which stars Dustin Hoffman as an actor who cross-dresses to get the lead role in a soap opera. Though not ostensibly "gay," Tootsie showed that Schisgal is pretty free about crossing lines and bending gender. Barkan thought he could get that same kind of resonance by taking one of the playwright's "straight" works and making it queer. According to associate director Eric Carlson, it didn't take much arm-twisting to get Schisgal's approval. Still, he wouldn't allow Actors Ensemble to take other liberties with the script.

The trick, then, was to get three different casts to handle the same material in their own way, and show that the romantic blunders exist across lines of gender and sexual preference. Barkan gave his casts the same set pieces: A sand box, a street lamp, and a bridge with two signs — one that said "No Dumping: Violators will be prosecuted" and another that offered crisis counseling. He gave them the same script, with minimal alterations beyond pronouns. He offered few stage directions and allowed his actors to interpret specific details (e.g., the paper bag that Harry wears over his head) as they saw fit. He didn't let the casts view each other's work.

Ergo, Barkan's three iterations of Luv, which alternate throughout the month at Live Oak Theatre. I saw the gay version, which starred Harold Pierce as the neurotic Harry Berlin, Stanley Spenger as Milt Manville, and Federico Edwards as Milt's husband Elliot. The opening dialogue offers few cues to brand the play as "gay": Milt and Harry swap stories about their hard-knock childhoods, Milt talks up the secondhand bric-a-brac business that requires him to sift through garbage cans, and Harry grouses about his ticks — he has weird paroxysms that render him temporarily deaf or mute. Until Milt's first mention of his husband, it seems like a play about fraternal bonding and love of the brotherly sort. But after the "gotcha" moment all sorts of questions pop up and remain unanswered. For one thing, it's not entirely clear how Milt knew that Harry was gay, or how Harry knew Milt was gay, since he seems to unquestioningly accept the idea of husband Elliot. All of a sudden their backstory becomes a lot more interesting and a lot more relevant — though it's up to the audience members to fill it in.

The original script requires an even bigger suspension of disbelief when Ellen comes in, ready to shank her unfaithful husband, and instead falls hopelessly in love with her husband's friend Harry, after knowing him for about twenty minutes. Perhaps you could blame such erratic behavior on spite and resentment for the man who done her wrong. But then you also have to believe that someone as practical-minded as Ellen Manville would fall for a lout like Harry Berlin. In this case, Ellen of course is Elliot, played by Edwards as an artsy, swishy, sashaying, museum-patronizing, fashionable queen with a photographic memory. He and Pierce's Harry seem utterly wrong for each other. (For that matter, he also seems like a poor match for a Dumpster diver like Milt.) But that makes for a lot of comic effect.

Barkan's production leaves a lot of ambiguity in time and space. Visually, the set could belong to any part of the United States (it's supposed to be a bridge in New York) and any era between 1964 and the present. The actors wear modern clothes but their dialogue doesn't quite read as contemporary, nor did the Rolling Stones song that played as the curtain went up. Otherwise, most of mechanics of the play work, as long as you buy in to the shotgun wedding between Ellen/Harry, Elliot/Harry and Ellen/Harriet — and, when that fails, the suddenly resuscitated romance between Milt/Ellen, Milt/Elliot, and Melissa/Ellen. Overall, fidelity to Schisgal's 1964 script seems to work. Most of the old jokes still have some zing in 2009, and it's always fun — and even a little transgressive — to see how the same love triangle works with a different gender configuration. Granted, a few things get lost in translation. And a lot gets added.

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