Kinetic Theatre closes its production season with a deceptive confection of a play. Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love might best be described as an generational comedy wrapped around a family tragedy, a bitter pill delivered in a spoonful of comedic honey.
The target of Bartlett’s biting satire is the baby boom generation, and more specifically that set of boomers who hit college age in the late sixties and early seventies, raised Generation X while they rode the wave of eighties prosperity, and are just now hitting retirement age. This is the same set of folks whose transition from counterculturalists to middle-class homeowners was the subject of the late 1980s TV series thirtysomething. But unlike that show, Bartlett is less interested in the struggles of the baby boomers themselves than in the effect they have had on the generation that came after them.
The play hopscotches from 1967 to 1989 to 2010 (a time travel achieved adroitly through Johnmichael Bohach’s ingenious scenic design and Abby Stroot’s spot-on costumes), showing three snapshots in the evolution of Kenneth (Darren Weller) and Sandra (Mindy Woodhead) from freewheeling, doped-up hippies to self-absorbed, alcohol-addicted parents and finally to smug, self-satisfied retirees. Meanwhile, their children Rosie (Aviana Glover) and Jamie (Ethan Saks) devolve from smart teens with loads of potential (she’s a talented violinist; he’s a math nerd) to adults who have failed to fully launch.
Who or what is to blame? The comedy of the play lays the fault at the feet of the “Me” generation, which – as Bartlett wants us to see it – managed, as it aged, to shed its countercultural rebellion but not its self-absorption. Where the play is funniest is where it reveals the hypocrisies of the generation whose desire for self-actualization brought us all sorts of positive social changes (the sexual revolution, civil rights, women’s rights, etc.) but who also managed to parent a bunch of kids who couldn’t tie their own shoes or do their own laundry and for whom – as Jia Tolentino put it in this week’s New Yorker – self-actualization “was a mandate to be undermined.” Bartlett is sharp and stinging in his portrayal of Kenneth and Sandra as so wrapped up in “disappointment” over their slide into middle-class conventionality that they are blithely indifferent to their children’s aspirations and needs, and he makes a trenchant connection between the “Me” generation’s navel-gazing and the socio-economic fact that thirtysomethings in the 2010s are drowning in student debt while their parents cash in on paid-off homes and a lifetime of retirement savings.
Director Andrew Paul and his excellent cast keep that comedic generational critique front and center throughout. But strip away the dates, and the play could also be seen as a tragic tale of a narcissistic substance abuser (Sandra) and the toxic effect she has on all who love her. An emotional Tasmanian Devil, Sandra splits Kenneth from his older brother Henry (also played by Saks) in the first scene, destroys her marriage and causes lasting psychological damage to her children in the second, and gaslights Rosie when she confronts her in the third. There’s nothing very funny about that story; indeed, in several spots the play takes an unexpected detour into poignancy.
Paradoxically, much of the production’s comic punch emerges out of the cast’s commitment to leaning in to that pain and confusion and giving this family’s dysfunction emotional weight. Woodhead is masterful as Sandra, keeping her just on the bright edge of crazy throughout, and the havoc she casts about her is believable, and – in consequence – often quite hilarious. Weller, on the other hand, has got the vibe of the cool dude – and, later, cool dad – down pat. He’s a guy who rolls with the times, and you could imagine that if he had been born a decade later he might have been socialized to be a more caring parent; as it is, he surfs (like so many baby boom fathers) on his own domestic incompetence. Neither Woodhead nor Weller is very convincing as a nineteen year-old in the first scene, but that’s probably an unmeetable challenge posed by the play: there aren’t many actors who can span the age range demanded for these characters without the help of film special effects. Glover and Saks, on the other hand, have an easier range to fill, making comic hay out of their characters as teens and really blooming as the adult Rosie and Jamie in the third scene. Saks, in particular, deftly captures the deflated introversion of the adult Gen-X underachiever who can’t manage to focus his energies or his life (there’s a hint that both Kenneth and Jamie suffer from an attention-deficit disorder, an ailment that seems not to have hindered members of Kenneth’s generation in the way it has held back their children).
So which is it: comedy or tragedy? The play ends with the parents back in a bubble of love that their children can’t penetrate. It’s a happy ending for the erstwhile hippies, I suppose, but a rather dire warning for the future.