Six Actors, 32 Lovers 

And ten takes, delightful as a whole, on love through the ages.

It may be a many-splendored thing, but love can also be a chore, a transaction, or a royal pain in the ass. This point is made with wit and a refreshing lack of goo in Moira Buffini's terribly smart and funny Loveplay, now at TheatreFIRST's new space in Old Oakland.

Loveplay is not a play, exactly, but a series of ten vignettes that are more related than they first appear. Beginning in 79 AD with a Roman soldier attempting to buy sexual attentions with unfamiliar coin, and ending at a very awkward party in an expensive modern-day dating agency, six actors play 32 different lovers. The settings range from a forest clearing to a flower-power squat, each in the same geographic location; over two thousand years, what starts as a Roman latrine becomes an abbey, an urban townhouse, an artist's garret in the bad part of town, and so on. It's a cute idea, not only grounding the production, but giving the characters a chance to remark on what might have taken place there before ("Maybe it was a temple," remarks one soldier to another about the latrine, "and those holes were altars").

What's not cute, as a warning to sensitive audiences, is an offstage rape early in the show. While it seems incongruous in a play about love, even more so is the discussion about what the act gains the perpetrator, a sort of New Agey self-actualization that would sound at home at any Crystal Faire if it weren't about something so horrible. But the rape does make sense in the play's larger context, and is gotten out of the way blessedly early, leaving the way clear for several bits of honest passion, warmth, and occasional silliness.

Speaking of passion, there's an awful lot of kissing going on, and while it's all hot, there's one kiss in particular between two friends long parted that is exceptional. As much about sadness and lost opportunities as it is about lust or affection, it's a whole scene in one osculation, and the tension leading up to that moment is beautifully played. It's one of the few moments that you can see coming a mile off: Buffini has all sorts of opportunities to do pat things, and ignores nearly all of them. It's impossible to guess, from moment to moment, how things will go. Which man will the Renaissance actress take as her true love? Which modern-day suitor is really looking for "an unstable lapdancing stigmatic"? Will Brigitta ever make a dating video that strikes a balance between being honest and being attractive?

Perhaps to point up their universality, in almost every vignette all of the characters have names that rhyme: Eric, Herek, and Deric; Anita, Rita, Dieter, Peter, and Brigitta; Billy, Milly, Quilly, and Tilly; and so on. Maybe the naming convention just amused Buffini. Or it could be read as a story about reincarnation, and people keep being paired up through time because there's some cosmic challenge they have to face together. One such couple might be the one played by Lizzie Calogero and Noah James Butler, who are especially funny as Gwyn and Lynne, a battling couple showing up for a 1969 "love-in." In other eras and permutations they take various kinds of advantage of each other; here they explain to their petrified hostess (a sweetly naive Kendra Oberhauser) that orgies are the only way they can stand to be sexual with each other any longer.

The play's construction lets each actor show several different facets, but it's not as confusing as multiple-role shows can be. While some of the actors tend to get similar characters -- for example, Holli Hornlien's are generally wild women (two different prostitutes, the naughty governess), Calogero's prim and correct (Mother Superior, an educated spinster), Rowan Brooks' men meditative and shy -- there's enough variety to keep things interesting. Director Robin Stanton's cast is nimble and precise, with some really wonderful performances from everyone involved, from a priceless face Calogero makes in the abbey scene to Dana Jepsen's struggle with his choices in an 1823 garret.

While the representations of older history we have to take on faith (in the Dark Ages, did men really say things like "When I want to shag, I find somefing to shag and I shag it"?), the more contemporary pieces are embarrassingly funny in their accuracy. Check out the couple in the squat talking each other into screwing other people: "We've got a great thing; that's why we've got to share it with others, baby." And the bit in the dating agency, with several stories going on at once ("I feel like I'm standing on an ice floe and the rest of humanity is floating away" contrasted with "For some reason people seem to be embarrassed talking about their urinary tracts"), speaks volumes about meeting people in the digital age.

A few pieces aren't as successful because they don't really have time to unfold. The 1932 piece relies on a sight gag, and there are a couple of stories that could go a little farther, hanging instead tantalizingly unfinished. But by and large, the ambiguous endings honestly reflect what love is like in the real world: uncertain, unfinished, unpredictable, part of a larger comedy we can't always appreciate. Here we get that chance, and it's a delight.

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