Encore Michigan

‘Smart Love’ at The Purple Rose examines clash of love and tech

Review January 29, 2017 Jenn McKee

CHELSEA, Mich.– In recent years, technology has fed our impulses so successfully that we’ve grown accustomed to getting instant answers to questions, and watching or listening to or reading anything we want, whenever we want it. Fewer and fewer mundane desires ever go unfulfilled. But are we happier now? And is something lost when we never experience anticipation, and very little outstrips our reach?

These are some of the many, many questions raised in Brian Letscher’s new comic drama, Smart Love, now having its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre. The play begins in the wee, still-dark hours of the morning, when a cozy, post-coital scene between a recent widow, Sandy (Sarab Kamoo), and her widower boyfriend, Victor (Jim Porterfield) is abruptly halted by the unexpected arrival of Sandy’s son, Benji (David Bendena). Mother and son have been out of contact for a while, following the sudden collapse, seven months earlier, of the family patriarch, Ron (Wayne David Parker): a dreamy inventor who never saw his years of hard work come to fruition.

And while all signs indicate that Sandy is moving forward with her life, Benji – an MIT doctoral student who works in an artificial intelligence lab and witnessed his beloved father’s death – is a future-embracing young scientist who can’t stop looking back. He makes the ultimate dramatic gesture on the eve of what would have been his parents’ 25th anniversary, but he does so without knowing all the facts about their marriage.

To say anything more would ruin the many, many twists in Letscher’s 90 minute, intermission-less play, so I’ll leave it at that. But what I can say is that you’ve probably never seen a story quite like this unfold on stage. And while Smart Love has its flaws, it’s nonetheless affecting enough to keep you deeply engaged. If you go see it with friends, you’re likely to be talking about the play’s themes long into the night. If you go by yourself (as I did), your mind will be chewing on it for a good while.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that director Guy Sanville cast four pros to bring this unusual tale to life. Kamoo masterfully anchors the production as a woman on the verge of achieving happiness who suddenly finds herself in an impossible position. She has a lot of emotional ground to cover – from hard-won contentment, to intense family conflict, to shock, to committing a painful, inevitable act – and she does so seamlessly and, perhaps more importantly, believably. Bendena’s challenge is different, in that he must evoke a man obsessed without veering into caricature. Some moments on opening night that crossed that delicate line, but Bendena’s all-in commitment is also a strength, since the audience feels the full force of Benji’s mania.

Porterfield, meanwhile, earns solid laughs by playing a decent, besotted widower, but he also provides the play with an objective voice of reason, as well as emotional steadiness in a maelstrom. Parker, finally – a longtime Rose regular – may have the trickiest role of all, for which there’s no blueprint; but he nonetheless navigates his way with humor and restraint.

Gary Ciarkowski designed the set: the interior of Sandy’s snug, tidy-but-not-flashy Hamtramck home (where Benji grew up), complete with a fold-down attic ladder (which gets acrobatically climbed and descended by Bendena a number of times). The set details, like paint samples on the entryway wall, a scuffed, worn floor, and a rolled up carpet, visually indicate a home in-transition. Dana L. White’s lighting design, and Tom Whalen’s sound design, help achieve the illusion of one character’s abilities and powers and “technological connectedness.” Shelby Newport’s costumes convey not only the netherworld of post-midnight-pre-dawn hours, but also Benji’s hopes for his hyper-romanticized plan; and Danna Segrest’s props – like Benji’s large, clunky suitcases, and journals that actually have writing in them – complete the picture.

Letscher has a few subtle winks embedded in the play’s script, such as Benji’s lab boss being named Anne Rice, and the family’s surname, Wachowski, seemingly paying homage to the filmmaking siblings who created “The Matrix” while also placing the family more firmly within Hamtramck’s Polish community.

Yet, Smart Love did raise a few questions for me that didn’t involve themes, but rather storytelling. It was a little slow getting started, and I wondered about a grown man’s child-like fixation on his parents’ romantic life (and milestone anniversary), instead of perhaps focusing on his own disrupted relationship with his father. And given that Benji’s on the lam, with something paid for and made in a top-secret collaboration with the federal government, it’s hard for me to believe he wouldn’t be chased down and seized by some authorities pretty immediately.

But this is merely the gristle on a pretty solid cut of meat. For as the play progressed, I considered how the partition between our gadgets and our brains is becoming increasingly porous; I thought about how the push to constantly make things “better” and easier often, ironically, numbs us into a paralyzing, existential misery. And I pondered how loss, painful though it may be, sometimes serves a really important function, in that it can push us forward, set us free, or force us to re-calibrate our priorities.

So checking out Smart Love would be a wise move, but I’d also definitely suggest blocking off time for conversation afterward. You’ll have a lot to sort out.

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Week of 2/20/2017

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