I Love You Because: A Perfect Mismatch
The matching of a conservative, uptight guy with a free-spirited, flakey chick is a romantic comedy staple that works so well I bet the first draft of Genesis had Adam and Eve ditching the fig leaves for a Brooks Brothers suit and a Betsey Johnson get-up. Don't ya just live for the screaming matches they have when he calls her immature and she calls him a Republican and just when you think they're gonna walk out of each other's lives forever they start making out like crazy? Now that's romance.
Oh sure, sometimes you get the roles reversed where he's the freaky one and she's the corporate go-getter. I wonder how it would work if both of them were conservative and uptight. I imagine there wouldn't be much of a plot, what with them both sorta just sitting there all the time.
The adorably fun I Love You Because doesn't set out to break any of the rules of romantic comedy. From the mismatched pair to the kooky secondary characters to the skyscraper-laden Manhattan setting, it all seems to sing out like a chorus of "I Wanna Be Nora Ephron." But just because it's predictable doesn't mean it's not worth a visit. Ryan Cunningham's laugh-filled book and cleverly constructed lyrics matched with Joshua Salzman's light jazz/pop score is a winning combination. Add a cast that bubbles over with comic zing and you've got a loveable show that shoots Cupid's arrow straight to the funny bone.
Loosely very loosely based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (with the genders reversed) it's the story of how the methodical greeting card poet Austin (Colin Hanlon) and live-for-the-moment Marcy (Farah Alvin) try against all odds not to fall in love with each other. She's on the rebound and has decided not to consider any date as relationship material for at least six months. He's heartbroken after catching his girlfriend cheating and is determined to write the perfect love poem to win her back.
Meanwhile Austin's hyper-horny, malapropping brother, Jeff (David A Austin), has been wearing out the mattress with Marcy's brainy, emotionally aloof friend, Diana (Stephanie D'Abruzzo), while remaining "just friends."
The show's major strength is the collection of clever, scene specific songs that make up the score. Cunningham's lyrics are nicely conversational and often very amusing. Diana, an actuary, sings a complex mathematical formula to determine how soon after her break-up Marcy should start seriously dating again. Another song is made up of the awkward first date conversation where Austin keeps raving to Marcy about what a wonderful woman his ex is. Even when left alone to consider the change in his love life, Austin sings as though he's talking to himself and answering back.
But there are also a couple of pullout tunes that can be enjoyed outside of the show. Cabaret duos should be emailing the authors now for sheet music to the goofy and tuneful vaudevillian turn performed by Jeff and Diana about the joys of being friends with benefits. And when Marcy confesses her attraction for a man who seems like a hopeless mismatch, she has an unusual, but very loving song about choosing the one who isn't what she ever hoped for, adoring him even as she lists his flaws.
But if their characters are mismatched, Hanlon and Alvin are a perfect fit as the primary couple, playing his bottled up depression and her giddy energy for comic contrast while lightly hitting the sadness of being rejected and alone. D'Abruzzo is a hoot as the perky intellectual, especially when things heat up between her and the dim-witted, groin-driven Austin, who can turn a bottle of Fabreze into an uproarious routine. Filling out the company, playing everyone else in New York, is the charming and funny pairing of Jordan Leeds and Courtney Balan.
The stage is a runway, designed by Beowulf Boritt and Jo Winiarski, with cartoon cutouts of Manhattan buildings on each end. The crayon and magic marker interpretation of New York doesn't match the style of the material, but the larger problem is that the audience is seated on two sides in long rows that are raised only slightly higher than the ones in front of them, creating such poor sightlines that physical bits below the waist may often be out of view. You might find yourself stretching your neck to try and see what the people on the other side of the house are laughing at. Director Daniel Kutner's staging, though packed with many amusing moments, has too many long stretches where a viewer may be stuck staring at the back of an actor singing a solo.
But aside from some stage and staging problems, I Love You Because is a perfectly grand New York debut for the talented team of Cunningham and Salzman. Ya know, I bet they could make something enjoyable out of two uptight conservatives falling in love.