Heartbreak Houses

Two female playwrights mop up with pine-scented romance

First love, that perennial subject for emerging writers, is only interesting when something goes awry. Typically, the sad tale is told from the bereft man's point of view, as he pines like young Werther or rages like one of Mamet's Chicago protagonists. In two new plays by women, each receiving her first major New York production, the course of true love fails again to run smooth. Both keep the guy at the narrative center, one raging, one pining.

In Smashing, Brooke Berman twists the old trope by exposing the furious man's version of events as exaggerated and self-serving; in Touch, Toni Press-Coffman lets her heartbroken hero wallow, then come to grips.

Berman brings layered points of view, clever dialogue, and breezy jump-cut plotting to a trite story: Unctuous writer reveals intimate details about real people in his fiction and pisses them off. In this instance, the author is unshaven, narcissistic Jason (David Barlow), who bases his first novel on his obsessive six-month affair with Abby (Katharine Powell), the teenage daughter of his literary hero and M.F.A. instructor. The play, crisply directed by Trip Cullman, is set shortly after Jason's novel, Cherry Pie at the Hungarian, has debuted to smashing reviews. Now 21, Abby sets out for vengeance, with her best friend Clea (Merritt Wever) in tow.

Berman's book club
photo: Carol Rosegg
Berman's book club

Berman has a sharp satiric ear. Jason's prose—quoted when he stands at a mic giving readings, or when Abby and Clea read outrageous passages to each other—just barely exaggerates the erotic whininess that passed for cutting edge in the '90s: "Her literary references covering her fear of fellatio, I never got to see her empty selfish meaningless face suck my cock. Give me head, you selfish selfish selfish bitch." Abby's dad (Joseph Siravo) oozes snobby self-assurance, making sure to pronounce "Himalayas" with the accent on the second syllable. As for Abby, she's her father's daughter—offering a rich and sexy young woman's version of that same confidence, she treats Jason with alluring aloofness.

But for all the detail Berman gives the tortured couple, the play's more interesting romantic betrayal unfolds in the friendship between Abby and Clea. A Midwestern girl with her own writerly aspirations, Clea idolizes Madonna, but it's Abby's worldliness Clea worships. When Abby disappoints her, Smashing finally hits honest emotion.

That's more than can be said for Press-Coffman's Touch, though it strives earnestly to evoke Feeling. A sentimental portrait of a man named Kyle (Tom Everett Scott) who has lost his wife to violence, Touch belongs to the single-extended-metaphor school of playwriting so favored by our regional theaters.

The playwright's bludgeoning image is the cosmos. Kyle is an astronomer whose affection for heavenly bodies blurs with his attraction to a particular human body during his high school physics class. In a 30-minute monologue that opens the play, he chronicles his budding romance: Geeky guy meets kooky coed and, much to his amazement—an amazement much like the one he feels gazing at "the mind-boggling infinite number of possibilities" in the sky—he gets the girl. Her gregariousness helps him come out of his shell; when she dies half a dozen years into their marriage, he curls back into it. A golden-hearted prostitute and his best friend's own budding romance coax him out again.

Despite a serviceable cast gamely directed by Loretta Greco, the production can't find any texture. In large measure that's because Press-Coffman doesn't dramatize action so much as line up a series of occasionally intersecting monologues whose voices hardly vary. Amid the verbiage, Press-Coffman's insight into grief sometimes seeps through. But it dissipates like stardust because she fails to give Touchcompelling theatrical shape.

 
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