Murray Schisgal’s absurdist comedy Luv is a play of a certain time (1964) and place (a Manhattan bridge). Its characters are a misbegotten trio (husband, wife and hubby’s former school pal), neurotic New Yorkers who think that love is the answer to all that ails them. And boy, are they ailing.
Manalapan’s Plaza Theatre has picked Luv as the followup to its successful, much-praised production of Driving Miss Daisy. Though each play has three characters, the two pieces could hardly be more different – but Luv, like Daisy, is well-acted.
Luv plays like a strange amalgam of an early Neil Simon play, theater of the absurd and a Jules Feiffer cartoon come to life. Its rhythms would be familiar to a Catskills comedian, and because of that, director Andy Rogow is particularly lucky to have Avi Hoffman playing the part of manipulative Milt Manville. Creating any character requires memorization, rehearsal and performance choices, but taking on Mel is a comfortable fit for Hoffman, like putting on a made-to-order suit. Or lederhosen, a visual that must be experienced in person.
First to the stage in Luv is Harry Berlin (Steven J. Carroll), a lifelong loser who has been on a downward spiral ever since a dog took a potty break on his leg (there’s absurdist humor for you). Harry, who uses a rope in lieu of a belt, has decided to end it all by leaping from a bridge by a picturesque park (the set is by the much-in-demand Sean McClelland). But before he can take the plunge, he’s interrupted by Milt, who supplements his income by turning other people’s trash into second-hand treasures (more absurdist humor).
Harry and Milt turn out to be former college classmates, Harry having squandered his potential while Milt has more than fulfilled his. Yet as the two trade stories about the miseries in their lives, Milt hatches a scheme. If Harry would take Milt’s unhappy wife Ellen (Patti Gardner) off his hands, then Milt would be free to wed his sexy mistress Linda. The rest of the play falls under the category “be careful what you wish for.”
Rogow gives the actors lots of physical shtick, which Hoffman plays to the hilt as he’s decked out in designer Linda C. Shorrock’s ever-sillier costumes. Carroll’s main physical business involves running through Harry’s psychosomatic afflictions, but after the first few, they’re not all that funny. Gardner is a smart, sharp comedic foil for Hoffman, and with her black beatnik getup and beret, it’s she who brings the Feiffer vibe to Luv.
The Plaza Theatre is still in the process of carving out its identity, offering revues, cabaret shows, musicals and vintage comedies with name recognition. The choices aren’t daring because this audience is looking for entertainment, not enlightenment. On that score, Luv delivers.