Monday, January 26, 2009

I Love You Because, PlayhouseSquare

(Corey Mach as Austin and Jessica Cope as Marcy)

If you think you deserve an emotional bailout in this, the winter of our financial discontent, it awaits you in downtown Cleveland. And the production is all the more amazing, and somehow even more enjoyable, since the show surmounts a blandly sappy title and the most predictable plot line since Lassie Come Home.

Stuck in the nether world between a musical and a musical revue, I Love You Because (hey, I told you it was sappy) now at PlayhouseSquare is a light, funny, romantic and vibrant two hours that will kick-start your endorphins and leave you craving more.

Featuring some witty and lively songs by Joshua Salzman (music) and Ryan Cunningham (book and lyrics), the basic elements are there. But it all comes together thanks to Victoria Bussert’s frenetic, gleeful direction. Indeed, the six-person cast never lets up for a minute and, by the end of the evening, you may need a friend to help massage the goofy grin off your face.

It’s all set in present-day New York City where twenty-ish people are constantly on the prowl for lovers, partners or just a fast good time. One of these, Austin, is an uptight greeting card writer who is always trying to finish the thought, “Life is like a…” (Mistakenly calling these musings metaphors—actually, they’re similes—he never comes up with one to top humorist Lewis Grizzard’s: “Life is like a dog sled team, If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”

Anyhow, Austin has just had his heart crushed, catching his long-term girlfriend and putative fiancee with another guy. He is consoled by his amiably goofy brother Jeff, a computer game geek with a tendency for malapropisms (“Get your ducks in a line…a ROW.”) Jeff’s prescription for Austin: Become indifferent, and that will lure Catherine back.

Are you laughing yet? Of course not, but that’s just because you haven’t seen how this is played out in the intimate confines of the 14th Street Theatre. Corey Mach, who eerily looks and acts like Michael Cera, is an ideal Austin as his pleasantly bland personality, coat & tie exterior and regimented habits (he takes his own thermos of home-brewed java to the local coffee shop) barely camouflage his more, um, urgent relationship needs.

As T-shirted Jeff, Matt Lillo is a perfect counterpoint to his bro—all unrestrained id and spontaneity. With an appearance similar to a cousin of Kevin Bacon, Lillo generates plenty of giggles by tossing off his laugh lines with a serious mien and understated aplomb.

During an “on-the-rebound” prowl, Austin meets up with Marcy, a free-spirited, progressive yin to his tight-ass Republican yang. And Jeff hooks up with Diana (they meet through J-Date, although neither is Jewish), a woman who matches Jeff’s oddball nature in public and exceeds his wildest dreams in private.

In a cast with consistently professional voices, Jessica Cope as Marcy has the best pipes and puts them to good use in the brightest song of the evening, “Even Though.” In this second act gem, she relates her reluctant attraction to Austin: “Even though you’re just a little bit pretentious/Even though you’re more traditional than my dad.”

As Diana, the astonishingly slim and flexible Jodi Dominick is a hoot, from her high-speed, convoluted musical description of a mathematical formula for dating to a futon-based seduction of Jeff that would win most Olympic gymnastic competitions.

These four winning performances are supported ably by Kyle Primous and Ursula Cataan, who play various NYC denizens, such as bartenders and such. Although he has precious few lines, Primous makes the most of them in a stylized performance that stops just short of belonging in a different show altogether.

Inevitably, there are some clunkers, as the first act ends with two clumsily dreary solos by Austin and Marcy that deflate the buoyant energy that had been building. And the title song show-closer is also a bit of a letdown. But other than those hollow moments, I Love You Because has lots to love, including a handsome glass block set by Russ Borski and strong band accompaniment directed by Matthew Webb.

May it run until we are all employed and back on our feet again (yes, that long).

I Love You Because
Through May 17, produced by PlayhouseSquare at
the 14th Street Theatre, 2037 E. 14th Street,

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