BWW Reviews: Winsome TRUDY AND MAX IN LOVE Debuts at South Coast Rep
In her terrific new play TRUDY AND MAX IN LOVE---now having its World Premiere performances at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through January 29---writer-actress Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) puts an engaging millennial spin on the typical cute-boy-meets-cute-girl story. While, true, the situations---and the complications---presented here feel somewhat familiar to the genre, the dramedy's enjoyable execution---particularly in the hands of its impressive cast of superb actors---make it, ultimately, a captivating play that's winsomely fresh and oh-so-current. You can hashtag it #FirstWorldRomanceProblems.
Under the direction of Lila Neugebauer, the story unfolds within a rapid succession of situational vignettes, often introduced by a flash of supertitles projected on a back wall to help with geographical positioning. The abrupt "cuts" between each vignette---and the minimal, yet clever set changes and lighting cues that it takes to transition from one locale to another---help give the play the pseudo-feel of a caught-on-DVR reality TV series that follows the blossoming relationship between sort-of-famous 39-year-old novelist Max (the extremely likable Michael Weston) and potty-mouthed twenty-something YA (Young Adult) author Trudy (the intriguingly alluring Aya Cash).
The two attractive writers have the kind of meet-cute you'd expect from young hot hipsters that know they're kind of cool---and have instantly identified each other as cool.
Following the notion that everything happens for a reason... their "chance" encounter occurs while renting space inside a "writers' room," the kind of nouveau-creative hangout you wouldn't be surprised exists in present day New York (Starbucks is probably too touristy and the WiFi there is spotty, perhaps). As pre-determined by the universe---and Kazan's imagination---they pick each other out across a not-so-crowded room and exchange the kind of flirty, snarky banter that young people nowadays have in abundance: the easy-breezy, sort of outward ballsy-ness people have in the Facebook and Twitter generation.
A benign conversation over coffee allows each person to out-charm the other. Boom! Sparks fly. Their electric connection is instantaneous and palpable, of course.
But their obvious attraction is relegated to an awkward, but close friendship at the start, as their lives are mutually complicated by several cart-loads of baggage: over-thinker Max has just moved--or, rather, escaped---from L.A. after ending a "complicated" relationship with a runway model; self-proclaimed "attention whore" Trudy is desperately seeking stimulation from boredom while being left alone at home by her news reporter husband, who's often traveling away on the campaign trail. There are heart-to-heart conversations and run-ins with their respective friends and acquaintances (gender-specific roles disbursed between Tate Ellington and scene-stealer Celeste Den) who each provide sounding boards yielding both supportive and judgmental feedback.
When the two finally give in and succumb to the romantic feelings foreshadowed by the play's title---their complex, hush-hush affair not only plunges them in a sea of bliss, it also, unsurprisingly, opens up the floodgates of jealousy, distrust, and resentment. Naturally, all of this is bound to doom their pairing, even if fate and science say otherwise.
And we---and the very couple this play focuses on---are once again asked to ponder that age-old question: is it really possible to genuinely love two people equally at the same time?
Interestingly staged with intelligence, witty dialogue, and plenty of biting humor, TRUDY AND MAX IN LOVE is an appealing modern day play that pits two people struggling in a battle between two opposing forces: their hearts and their heads. Which is the best path to happiness and adult-prophecised fulfillment---giving in to undeniable, off-the-charts chemistry or making smart, thought-out choices?
Much of the play is stylized like a quick-cut, reality TV episode that mines a storyline from natural conversations and realistic interactions. It zips along with a feverish purpose, slowing down with extra care only during the (few) quiet moments of introspection and revelation. Even the staging feels like real people in a real environment---in this case a single room designed to be every space in every vignette (Laura Jellinek's simple set is complimented by Lap Chi Chu's effective lighting schemes). The actors come and go; and sometimes they just sit in the background like the anonymous strangers one would expect in a large metropolis (even the subtle addition and subtraction of various set pieces, knick-knacks, and environmental accoutrements are breathlessly anticipated).
But the intrinsic fascination with the play is watching two people so right, yet so wrong for each other first tip-toe and haw around their flirtation, then jump heart-strong into their torrid affair, knowing that the consequences are looming just around the corner. While I appreciate the lively conveyor-belt pacing that Kazan's narrative device---and whip-smart dialogue---allows, I feel it's also a hinderance, somewhat... at least with the character of Max, whose persona in the play is shrouded in a bit of mystery.
You hardly get to dive into Max's life as vividly as we do into Trudy's; as such, Max comes off, at least for me, looking slightly more likable by default. Was this by design? Perhaps. By contrast, we are provided with plenty of unlikable character traits with Trudy---warts and all (we even get a peek into her visits to the shrink, too). So by the play's end, I was shocked that I had grown to feel less enamored with this seemingly toxic character, even though I wholeheartedly understand why Max fell madly in love with her so deeply in the first place.
Such interesting character complexities, though, is exactly what makes TRUDY AND MAX, in the grand scheme of things, an absorbing first production of an excellent play. But what really elevates the work even further is its enthralling foursome of actors that bring Kazan's words to full realization.
As Max, Weston provides an outstanding performance, skillfully playing up a character that can be both puppy-dog adorable and curiously sexy. But it is in his most vulnerable, tender moments that make him a truly riveting actor to watch. As Trudy, Cash brings a magnificent allure to her polarizing character, brimming with bravery and instinct at every turn. Love her or hate her, it's hard not to keep your eyes off the actress playing her.
Ellington is pretty great in his many scenes as various male characters, and is particularly solid when playing Max's cocky, uber-confident buddy who works in TV. And, as expected, Den once again proves herself to be a crackerjack addition to any cast, as she has been in recent appearances in SCR's productions of CHINGLISH and DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Here she morphs distinctively from snobby to sassy to sympathetic effortlessly playing various female roles throughout the dramedy (plus she looked gorg in that wedding dress).
In our current hemisphere of Twitter wars and TMZ breaking news, there really is something exciting and, perhaps, a bit voyeuristic watching a tumultuous, snark-filled relationship ebb and flow as it does in TRUDY AND MAX IN LOVE and, overall, Kazan allowed the tenor of the times to seep into her work here. In the end, she has managed to write a fresh, contemporary examination of the complications of love from characters that are as irrational as they are realistic---and sometimes, yes, frustrating as hell.
Therein lies the struggle for an audience member: do you root for these two kids to have their "Happily Ever After" or do you want to just climb up onstage and slap some sense into them? Maybe I'm getting more cynical as I grow older, but as much as I wanted to do the latter, I also had bittersweet feelings for them---that in a city as big as New York, they at least found each other at all.
On a side note: sometime after the play had ended, I randomly crossed paths with the pair of actors who play the titular couple across the street from SCR as I was contemplating what to have for dinner. I, of course, like a star-struck, grateful theater-goer congratulated them both on their impressive work in the play and they politely thanked me. Even outside of their riveting onstage personas, you can tell the two actors have such great chemistry. If you were just passing them by, you'd think they were a couple.
Maybe everything really does happen for a reason. Even play casting.
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Performances of Zoe Kazan's TRUDY AND MAX IN LOVE continue at South Coast Repertory through January 26, 2014. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.