44 Years of Family Dysfunction: “Love, Love, Love”

Richard Armitage, Amy Ryan, Ben Rosenfield and Zoe Kazan in Mike Bartlett's comedy-drama Love, Love, Love. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Let’s take a liberty with Leo Tolstoy’s opening line from Anna Karenina:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

But for Love, Love, Love, Mike Bartlett’s 2010 comedy-drama now stirring things up at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theater, let’s change the much-quoted quote to:

All functional families are alike; each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.

Many theatergoers will know Bartlett’s work from “King Charles III.”

Sandra (Amy Ryan) and Kenneth (Richard Armitage) aren’t yet family when they meet. He’s a lazy 19-year-old Oxford student and brother of 23-year-old Henry (Alex Hurt), whom Sandra, also an Oxford student, has dated for three months. When Sandra encounters Kenneth, she quickly does some free-form flirting with him — not necessarily because she prefers him but because it’s the way she’s used to getting her kicks with men. That’s Act I of Bartlett’s three-act play.

Moving on, Act II begins in 1990 — not that the approximate year is immediately obvious. On a second set by Derek McLane, there are what look like Franz Kline and Al Held canvases, suggesting that the owners — likely a couple of Act I characters — have a sufficient amount of money. We’re now in the London bedroom community of Reading.

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But the Act I characters are not yet present. Instead, we spot Jamie (Ben Rosenfield), a teenager holding a candle as a mic, gyrating to rock. He stops when he hears someone entering. Turns out he’s the son of Kenneth and Sandra, and the brother of 15-going-on-16-that-very-night Rose (Zoe Kazan). And here’s where this family’s dysfunctional behavior starts to be displayed.

Rose is inebriated from what she describes as a drinks-meeting with a colleague, which raises some suspicions about her true activities. Which rubs Kenneth’s nerves raw. Sandra has some suspicions of her own, which prove true. Which Kenneth cops to.

Over dinner and, later on, during a midnight birthday cake occasion, the family dysfunction heightens as Kenneth and Sandra seriously question the state of their marriage. Rose is so upset about her life — Mark, her boyfriend, has just dumped her — that she leaps up from the celebration and does something upstairs that frightens the others, a charged end to Act II.

Act III then unfolds on yet another McLane set — this one elegant, like something out of sophisticated, rural England — Kent, perhaps. It’s now 2011. Kenneth, divorced now from Sandra, shares this home with Jamie and Rose, who have gathered after the funeral for Henry, who is not seen again after Act I. (Not in the flesh, at least: Kenneth holds a smart-looking container of ashes.)

The nervous three are expecting Sandra, who is now married to the unseen Clive. When Sandra does arrive, yet more dysfunctional carryings-on carry on. Jamie is an unmoored fellow nearing middle age. Rose, sleek at 37, still hasn’t found the right man and despairs of never having the life she’d hoped for. Kenneth seizes the opportunity to expound on the promises he wanted fulfilled that never materialized for him, either — and oh, what an outpouring of quiet despair that is.

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Here’s where playwright Bartlett has a trick up his sleeve. While the maturing children attempt to handle their problems, the parents look to have awakenings that pick up big time on the Love, Love, Love title. (Sound designer Kai Harada leans on the “All You Need is Love” Beatles track throughout.)

For anti-spoiler reasons, there’s no call to describe the closing tableau, but it does prompt an intriguing thought about dysfunctional-functional family politics. Maybe mentioning Ronald and Nancy Reagan, whose love, love, love in real life was often reported to exclude their children, gives some idea of what Bartlett is getting at.

Indeed, he seems to raise this question: If a family appears to be functional for some of its members, is it indisputably dysfunctional? Also: is Bartlett simply musing on aspects of selfishness at play, and does selfishness preclude functionality within families? (The same queries are coming up in Divorce, the new Sarah Jessica Parker HBO series with Thomas Haden Church. Divorces are usually expected to be acrimonious, but the acrimony bar is noticeably higher on stage and screen these days.)

Many stateside theatergoers will know Bartlett’s work from King Charles III, which played Broadway last year. Written after Love, Love, Love, it, too, features a dysfunctional family — a famous one, in that case, but nevertheless also one that prominently lives in London and other fancy locales. Interestingly, and just as in Love, Love, Love, the older generation in King Charles III — that is, Princes Charles and Lady Camilla — seem happier and less driven than the younger, William and Kate generation.

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What an outpouring of quiet despair…

Back to Reading: when Kenneth and Sandra refer to it as an upscale but unexciting location, the very name has to reap the sort of raucous laughs in English theaters that won’t cascade here. By the same token, the English accents in this production are fine, if not regularly modulated. In the script, there is also at least one English-ism that ought to be corrected — so forgive the cavil ahead. As Henry, Hurt says, “I have other things to do, haven’t I?,” stressing the “I.” On the streets of London, the verbal italics would never be on “I” but the “haven’t.”

Accents aside, the five actors, whom Michael Mayer directs with utmost authority, play together well. Needing to present characters who age 44 years, Ryan and Armitage have the biggest challenges, and they come out okay, if best suited to Act II. Rosenfield’s Jamie and Kazan’s Rose only age 21 years and come out OK, too. (Appearing only in Act I, Hurt has it chronologically easier.) Susan Hilferty’s costumes help with the time progressions (an Act I Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian-like frock is inspired) and Campbell Young Associates’ wigs go some way towards creating the proper illusions.

At the end of the day and play, The Beatles may repeatedly insist that love is all you need, but Bartlett wonders if it’s true. If anything, the repetition in the title can be expressed as exasperation. Perhaps it is.