Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
There is beauty and deliverance in firing your own voice, sling-shotting it from meek to boisterous, from minuscule to magnificent, tracing the journey and catharsis of your own body through time and space from child to teenager to adult. Writer and actress Lois Robbins takes on this challenge with ease, drawing on her personal truths and experiences to excavate her life, love, and sexual encounters for humorous effect in the currently running “L.O.V.E.R.” at The Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre through November 2. Robbins effortlessly captures and commiserates with the audience’s focus, drawing us just close enough to empathize with her youthful mistakes yet also question our own moral standings and the judgement we place on youth in the rush to “grow up.” She tackles anti-Semitism, classism, and parental obstinance in comedic swoops strung together with dating anecdotes of relatable impulsivity and honesty. These moments are a breath of fresh air, delivering a much-needed theatrical perspective from the oft-pushed aside middle aged womxn’s story and experiences in a world and industry still fighting to change the systemic tide of oppression and erasure womxn face on every front of daily life. But it is precisely this daily life that Robbins captures with wit, humor, and verve, refusing to be pushed to the margins.
Robbins’ performance is sharp and lacerating as she yearns to break free of and make sense of her own experiences in front of us, drawing us in like an old friend warmly reminiscing around a few drinks. However, her nicking and prodding the pressure points of life from first loves to heartbreak to cancer and parenting manages to find humor without becoming controversial or deep. This surface level glide leaves the audience nodding and chuckling along with her vivacity, but is that the best response you want from a lover, er— audience? Beyond the self-gratification and catharsis that comes for the author of auto-biographical pieces, I was left without my own catharsis, scratching my head and wishing I had been implored or left with something a little bigger picture than just one woman’s sole experience unlinked to a larger picture.
The ending of the play, usually built to a climax of some sort or connection to such a larger picture, lands flat with a cheesy wrap-up and perspective geared seemingly toward women her own age. I say this because I flagged problematic feminism in the writing and presentation of the play; by the end of this play-- billed with a tantalizing photo of Robbins under a sheet and described as a sexy confessional-- Robbins says she has learned to be alone and to be and love herself, yet all we see in the story is her in relationships. The play is built to skip over sections of her growth and learning though parenting and marriage, only wanting to talk at length about the fun, sexy dating stage our society glorifies for laughs and relatability. But by defining herself in the text based solely on relationships to other men, whether those she dates or is related to, a few words at the end tying a bow on growth and independence (and presumed happiness because of it) does little to assuage the theatrical necessity of showing, not telling, since we have for ninety minutes just seen growth from the perspective of being influenced by others, not growth as a result of Robbins’ personal choices, convictions, or chutzpah.
Regardless of these few moments of storytelling self-indulgence and muddled clarity (aren’t memories and life, after all, a mess sometimes?), the bemusing chuckles and knowing grunts elicited from the audience (a nice mix of genders and race, but slanted older as most American theatre audiences go) consistently through the play prove that Robbins’ is touching on universal themes that I, as a younger woman, do not mean to discount or belittle. She has the dexterity to play herself at different ages with honesty and sincerity which is no small feat. One such challenge she scales easily is navigating hard truths of aging like feeling punished for feeling beautiful and sexy by institutional and parental claims, and Robbins beautifully captures how the attachment we have to our own bodies as womxn grows and contorts alongside a conditioned, learned detachment necessary as others project needs and violence and religions onto it at the same time we are just beginning to explore and enjoy our bodies.
This dichotomy of existence in the state of being a womxn is expressed before Robbins even has to say a word, through expert subtle design on behalf of the stellar female design team. The set of white sheets draped over a metal staircase, designed with deceptive breathtaking capacity by Jo Winiarski, manages to be both sexy and clinical. Lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew splashes the hues of sunsets and sunrises over the different stages of Robbins’ life.
If Robbins’ play (directed with tenacity by Karen Carpenter) can be viewed as a ninety-minute machine connecting her memory, insight, and expressive life, humor is the lubricant that smooths the give-and-take of her relentless creativity. It’s crucial for audiences to forgive the surface level writing and esoteric holes in the storytelling in order to indulge the whimsy and gather round the campfire enjoyment of the piece. Just like the summer camp days she describes, Robbins’ play is ultimately warm and inviting, a little naïve, but ultimately not too heavy-- which is exactly what you want from an old friend’s story. One or two of her anecdotes would be a mere frill, but “L.O.V.E.R.” is a pervasive, funny engagement using wry wit as the glue of debate and self-analysis, creating a piece that is distinctive and impactful for an audience gasping for the mere breath of fresh air placing women’s stories in the spotlight provides.
“L.O.V.E.R.” is presented by Kaleidoscope Creative Partners, written & performed by Lois Robbins, and directed by Karen Carpenter. The creative team for L.O.V.E.R. includes scenic design by Jo Winiarski, lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, sound design by Jane Shaw with costume styling by Fayola Ricotta. Run time is 90 minutes, no intermission.
“L.O.V.E.R.” runs at The Pershing Square Signature Center – The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre (480 West 42nd Street) through Saturday, November 2. For more information, please visit lovertheplay.com.
Photo: Lois Robbins by Joan Marcus