Northern Stage’s ‘Mad Love’ a crowd-pleaser, but carries heavy baggage

By David Lampe-Wilson
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

White River Junction’s Northern Stage approaches the dead of winter on an adventurous path with Marisa Smith’s new comedy Mad Love and judging by audience reaction during a recent preview performance, it has the potential of being a real crowd pleaser.

Dress rehearsal of Mad Love, produced by Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vermont on Tuesday, January 26, 2016. Copyright 2016 Rob Strong

Alex Trow, left, and Thom Miller during a dress rehearsal of ‘Mad Love.’ Photos copyright 2016 Rob Strong.

Mad Love is a 21st-century rom-com about a pair of brothers — Brandon (sensible and hard-working) and Doug (kooky and unpredictable) — and their romantic lives or lack thereof.

Brandon’s girlfriend Sloane has major plans for her future and an unconventional way of approaching life while Doug hooks up with a Ukrainian “escort/model” with a heart of gold. These are sitcom stereotypes but — written well and played with panache — these characters can still elicit laughs and supply an evening of unfettered entertainment.

With Mad Love, playwright Marisa Smith demonstrates that she knows her way around a punch line, but her characters are not fully formed. Besides, she has bigger subjects on her mind and Smith weighs her cardboard cutout characters down with some very heavy baggage — sexual violence and brain damage — and that weight collapses her sitcom soufflé. It is as if Neil Simon had taken one of his minor offerings … say Star-Spangled Girl — and hobbled it with a dose of incest and a dollop of cancer. Yes, life is difficult and we must all work through our tragedies, but Mad Love is decidedly schizophrenic.

Perhaps playwright Smith hopes that raising important issues will get an audience talking about them after the show, which is a worthy goal.

From left, Laurel Casillo, Daniel Patrick Smith and Alex Trow,

From left, Laurel Casillo, Daniel Patrick Smith and Alex Trow.

Director Maggie Burrows begins and ends the show with lackluster scenes set in a restaurant. Those scenes are devoid of the very comic pace that dominates the rest of the evening and expose a lack of chemistry between lovers Brandon and Sloane.

Still, this was during a preview performance and given time could blossom into something interesting. The rest of the evening giggles its way along splendidly until emotional pain bubbles to the surface and momentum comes to a crashing halt before it is revved up again.

Thom Miller and Alex Trow, who play lovers Brandon and Sloane, appear to be working their way into their respective roles. Much of what they do rings true and some of it is hysterically funny (at times, Trow’s long hair serves as a third comic character), but they don’t seem at ease with each other.

Laurel Casillo’s Katerina is the most fully formed character and her fractured English never sounds forced or out for a cheap laugh; Casillo’s Katerina is complex, knowing and smart. And while Daniel Patrick Smith is highly entertaining as quirky younger brother Doug, we are never really certain what damage he has suffered; he just seems like a weird college kid.

Alex Trow, left, and Laurel Casillo in 'Mad Love' at Northern Stage.

Alex Trow, left, and Laurel Casillo in ‘Mad Love’ at Northern Stage.

Production values are all up to Northern Stage’s high standards: Costume Designer Allison Crutchfield captures the look of being twentysomething in Manhattan, Lighting Designer Greg Solomon skillfully isolates scenes and music by Wardell gets us in the mood. Set Designer David L. Arsenault has created an interesting three-level set that never achieves the flexibility it’s hoping for. Setting a public school classroom in a kitchen still looks like a public school classroom set in a kitchen no matter how an audience tries to suspend its disbelief.

Mad Love continues as a work-in-progress. There are some splendid moments and a lot of laughs in this short evening. With playwright Smith onsite for the production, we hope that it will bloom and grow.

Mad Love continues through Saturday, Feb. 13 at Northern Stage, The Barrette Center for the Arts, 74 Gates St., White River Junction. Performances: Tuesday through Sunday; matinees on Thursday (also on Saturday, Feb. 13). For tickets and information, click here or call 802-291-9009.

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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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