Dating woes done comic: Even fizzle sizzles
By Carolyn Hayes
Playwright Norm Foster had one specific meaning in mind for the title of his comedy “Looking”: the stigmatized, desperation-rank practice of actively seeking a mate. Everybody wants to find love, yet to search for it, ostensibly to force it, paradoxically comes off as repellent. It’s therefore no coincidence that Tipping Point Theatre’s take on amorous connections sought and stumbled across, helmed by director Kate Peckham, flourishes on the basis of one intangible, organic ingredient that also portends romantic success. Put simply, it’s all about the chemistry.
At a tennis club in the here and now, Andy (Dave Davies) and Matt (Wayne David Parker) discuss Andy’s fruitless quest for a partner, a conversation mirrored by Val (Anne K. Miranda) and her friend Nina (Sandra Birch). Some are divorced, with adult children; all are single, with contrasting opinions and desires regarding dating, companionship and sex. What links the men’s and women’s stories is the personal ad Andy considers placing in the paper, the same one Val later reads with interest. Foster doesn’t dilly-dally about getting the two together on a blind date, each with their friend in tow as wingman. Yet the framing material is hardly wasted, full of tangential details that provide excellent comic fodder, such as Davies’ goofy sing-along peccadillo – keenly reflected in sound designer Christie Nichole’s ’70s-anchored pop hits to which you know most of the words.
The pub where the duos meet, as well as the gym and a handful of other locales, are imagined on designer Bartley H. Bauer’s modular set, with its many angles, tones, doors, configurations and levels on which the actors gaily play. Costumes by Amber Cook serve as a window into the characters’ expectations, especially with respect to first-date wear. Throw in a major misunderstanding prompted by outdated technology (cheers to properties designer Amanda Ewing), and you have a not-great start portending a not-great date.
It takes a sharp ensemble to champion the kind of misfires that ensue: Here, even the lousiest of lulls is rife with cooperative energy and abundant humor, with the performers’ exceptional harmony showing through disastrous repartee and keeping the laughter rolling. Although theirs is a tersely barbed world, the players strike a delicate balance of being cynical, but never hopeless.
Curiously, though, as the night wears on, the tedium of Andy and Val is drawn into harsher relief by the cerebral and carnal pull between Matt and Nina. Parker and Birch together are a tour de force in moments big and small, especially the latter’s sly, timid thrill as she opens up to irrepressible attraction.
The accidental match leads to a continuation of Foster’s he-said/he-said/she-said/she-said formula, as one couple uses the other to justify seeing each other again – think teenager-like scenes of overlapping phone calls, guided by Joel Klain’s lighting design. But after the jovial parallels of the first act, intentions are bound to fall into discord, and successes balanced out by failures. Peckham and company dive right into the stickier material with tender results, while remaining ever true to the characters and sustaining the plentiful humor of the world they’ve cultivated. As Val and Andy endeavor to support their friends’ happiness, Miranda and Davies also evolve incrementally. In rounding out their characters by building on and reinforcing established flaws, the pair that was initially all wrong for each other grows into something more interesting and complex, developments that feel duly earned.
This “Looking” approaches a satirical, hilariously disparaging text with finesse; the encapsulated story wells with humor in the telling, but softens sharp edges to make room for sensitive payoffs, delivered by a cast performing at the very top of its game. The production rarely reaches for extremes for its humor – thanks to rarefied comic chemistry, it reaches dizzying heights of hilarity without them.