I Love You You're Perfect Now Change
by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, January 2006
Any production of a play as widely and frequently performed as TNB's current show, I Love You You're Perfect Now Change, runs the risk of appearing to be what in the music world is called a "cover" -- an attempt to capitalize on someone else's creativity by selling a product that's really recycled, a bargain-basement knockoff. This show enjoyed a nine-year run on Broadway, and is seemingly produced somewhere in North America about every week, so the risk was especially great.
I'm relieved to report that Leigh Rivenbark and his company at TNB have managed to give the show an interesting, coherent, lively and professional production that puts what certainly feels like their own stamp on the material. The set is an extremely simple looking (but not actually simple at all) arrangement of two huge heart-shaped surfaces (decorated with a huge male symbol on our left and a female one on our right), and a flat back space with a heart on it, which is actually a scrim, on which a remarkable range of back projections can be created, and through which, as through a glass darkly, can be seen, sometimes, the two remarkable musicians who drive the performance -- Jonathan Monro, whose musical skills make us forget that we are, in essence, listening to singers accompanied by a keyboard, and violinist Lynn Kuo, who adds an often plaintive and sometimes gutsy wail, and in general fills the cracks (and treats us to a nice display of virtuosity at the opening of the second act).
In front of them, on the scrim, appear the ever-changing projections -- sometimes titles of individual sketches (often, I thought, rather too cute in a power-point sort of way), sometimes backdrops for sketches, either naturalistic photographs or stylized paintings. All the impressive visuals are by Denyse Karn, who has been, among other things, responsible for the lovely design for Mary's Wedding last year. At appointed moments, either or both of the huge heart-shaped surfaces at either side rotate to discover mini-sets for particular sketches. All of this, along with an astonishingly precise lighting design, incorporating what seem dozens of impeccably timed changes, by Leigh Ann Vardy, combine to create a sense of solid professional confidence about the production, into which the four-member cast can fit their talents without hesitation. Leigh Rivenbark's direction does not allow a moment's pointless pause: we're never conscious of waiting between sketches; nor, remarkably, of things being rushed. In spite of the fact that the show clearly demands a headlong, frantic pace backstage, to get through costume and makeup changes, it not only never felt hasty, it never felt delayed either.
This is a particularly important challenge for a company, because in the final analysis the evening doesn't really offer much beyond that breakneck, yet measured pace to keep us interested and engaged. The script is, in essence, a series of twenty sketches,or vignettes, of the kind that, once, Second City or The Laugh-In might have done, arranged in roughly chronological order, from courtship through pickups at a funeral home, from the Lord God creating Man and Woman to a touching moment at the far end of a marriage when a man wonders, looking across the silent breakfast table, "Shouldn't I be less in love with you?" and knowing that, after all, the answer is, well, "No." There is some thematic coherence (all the sketches are about "love and marriage" in some form), but in fact almost any individual sketch could be left out and an audience would never know (Rivenbark, as it happens, didn't leave any out).
Some of the skits are better ("A Stud and A Babe," in which two not-so-attractive people fantasize about what it would be like; or "The Family that Drives Together," in which the four actors create a family car with four typist chairs on casters) and some are not so enchanting ("Waiting," for instance, which tries without much success to pull together three different situations in which someone's waiting: a wife waiting for her husband's football game to be over, a husband waiting for his wife to finish shopping, a woman waiting for the women's room). The problem is of course, that there's not much coherence, that if there were a pause we'd find ourselves, as at the circus, saying, oh, that was a good one; what's next?
In turn, this puts a great deal of pressure on the four actors. With the help of the professional production, TNB's four are up to the challenge. Although some, of course, are more successful in some kinds of roles than others (Jamie McKnight, with his vulnerable face and fragile looking body, is best as various nerds; Shawn Henry ("our very own" Shawn Henry, as Claude Giroux referred to him on opening night) does a wonderful turn as a TV shill for a law firm ("Did you ever wish you could sue someone because they didn't satisfy you sexually? Well, good news: Now you can!") and of the Guy (capital G) at the chick flick discovering that in fact crying might actually be a pretty good date strategy. Cara Leslie is an effective ditz, and, oddly, is particularly touching -- in spite of the fact that she's nowhere near old enough -- as the brightly oblivious object of her aging husband's helpless adoration in "Shouldn't I be Less in Love with You?" The occasionally overpowering Shelley Simester, equally surprisingly, has two of the evening's most touching moments, as the bridesmaid in the appalling dress, singing about how perhaps, given the fate of the marriages she's witnessed, being always the bridesmaid might not be so bad, and especially as the wonderfully self-mocking Rose Ritz, making her "very first" dating video, after being abandoned by her husband of fifteen years and unable to be anything other than honest ("he left me for a size eighteen with a grandchild and a bad hip!")
None, of course, needs to do much in the way of character creation: a good supply of schtick is what you need for sketches that never run more than five minutes or so. If you have a wide repertoire of touching moues, hapless, winning smiles, moments of discovery, sudden sensitivity, and so forth, and can invoke them effectively and on demand, you have most of what you need to make I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change work; and all four actors have plenty of those kinds of moves.
There are, naturally, things I'd like to see improved. The singing is workmanlike, but occasionally all four actors are more actor than singer, forcing a tone and obscuring the words to compete with the occasionally overpowering musical accompaniment. The miking is, well, obtrusive: there's nothing quite like having the PA system kick in in the middle of the speech leading up to a song. In general, the show is simply pretty loud for me: yes, we are all used to being overwhelmed by sound systems at the movies and at rock and pop and even blues and jazz concerts, but I'm still unconvinced that in a hospitable environment like the Playhouse we need quite this much technical augmentation.
All in all, though, TNB's realization of this sure-fire hit helped us see why it's been so successful. As I heard someone say leaving the theatre, "a nice show for a dark January."