Love You to Death

Every woman knows a "Mr. Love." He's the too-handsome roué who dabs too much Aramis on his neck and darts his eyes at his reflection in every shiny surface. In Karoline Leach's 1995 play The Mysterious Mr. Love, now onstage at the Trinity River Arts Center, the title character carries more than the sweet stink of cologne. This flirtatious con man has an evil secret, revealed only in the final moments of the romantic period drama.

In Theatre Britain's highly entertaining production, Bill Jenkins wears the character of Mr. Love like a bespoke suit. He gets the quirky East London accent right enough, and the more he flashes his deeply dimpled smile at the woman he's preying on, the more threatening those white teeth become.

Jenkins is one of Dallas' most popular actors right now, coming off leading roles in Theatre Three's God's Man in Texas and WaterTower's I Hate Hamlet. As George Love, he's not so much mysterious as he is sexy and manipulative. He could charm the birds right out of the trees, only to maim them in his bare hands and pick his teeth with the bones.

Set in 1910 London, The Mysterious Mr. Love is a two-hander in two acts. Love explains right away, speaking directly to the audience, his simple modus operandi. "A surgical operation," he calls it. He looks for needy spinsters of a certain age, ladies of modest means who are grateful for his advances. He marries them (or so they think), gives them a night to remember and absconds with their life savings. He is super-cad, swooping in for the quick conquest and disappearing into the fog. The women are left broke and brokenhearted.

Then he meets Adelaide Pinchin (played touchingly by Sue Birch). At 39, Adelaide still lives at home with her parents and sews in the backroom of a hat shop. She has dreams she's too shy to share. "I've got everything planned for when I've lost weight," she says. But her diet is foiled by her own self-loathing. To escape her father's critical put-downs, she locks herself in her room and gorges on pastries.

Spotting her diamond brooch (a legacy from an aunt), George Love, out on the prowl, pegs Adelaide as a pigeon ripe for plucking. Within 24 hours, he's whisked her off to the registry office and is about to empty her bank account when something extraordinary happens. Having figured out that George is too good to be true, Adelaide turns the tables, pouring out her life story of poverty and abuse and begging him to stay with her. Like an Edwardian-era Dr. Phil, George listens sympathetically and susses out her problem: lack of self-esteem. Telling her she's smart, strong and beautiful, George leads her to believe they might have a life together. She, in turn, elicits his confession of a life of crime, which arose from a similarly abusive childhood.

A sort of gentle peace descends upon the two. George carefully pulls the pins from Adelaide's hair and slowly unlaces her boots. The sexual tension builds, and there's real love in the air.

Of course, they won't spend even one more day together. This play is enough like Hitchcock's old film The Lodger to telegraph its unhappy ending.

The play is no masterpiece--Act 1 lacks any suspense--but what's good about this production is how deeply the actors make us care about the characters. Like Adelaide, we allow ourselves briefly to hope that these two will find redemption from their self-made private hells. It comes as no surprise that they don't, but it's a measure of the fine performances that we feel a real pang of sadness as the lights go down.

Also drenched in British accents is Theatre Three's season opener, The Great Sebastians, a Cold War comic romp written in the '50s as a vehicle for the legendary acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Waltzing elegantly and mugging shamelessly as the leads in this production are J. Brent Alford as Rudi Sebastian and Elizabeth Rothan as his wife, Essie. The Sebastians are a vaudeville mind-reading act, doing the grand tour of music halls in Eastern Europe. They land in Czechoslovakia, Rudi's homeland, just as the Communists take power. Held under house arrest by a suspicious general (played broadly by Larry Randolph), the Sebastians must use psychic flimflam to get out of the country.

Invited to perform their tricks in the general's parlor, the couple are left alone temporarily, and they use the time to practice their complicated system of codes and hand signals. They're about as genuinely psychic as that oily guy on afternoon television.

Here is where Rothan comes alive as a natural slapstick artist, her slim frame bending and whipping into frantic shapes as she flies into a panic at the fear of forgetting the signals, blowing the act and getting them both thrown in the clink. Cockney Essie frets that they'll be "liquidated" by the soldiers. "That always sounded to me loik being put in a bottle," she says.

Throughout the play, director Jac Alder has Alford wisely step aside to give Rothan the spotlight in most scenes, and it's a good thing, too, because she's a riot of gestures and facial expressions. But Alford holds his own. He is terrific as Rudi, as hammy as an Easter lunch, but solid and very funny.

The Festival of Independent Theatres is currently up and running at the Bath House Cultural Center, the fourth year presenting a rotating repertory of new plays by some of Dallas' fringe companies. Among the offerings: Echo Theatre's Vita and Virginia, a reading of letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West; Core Performance Manufactory's Fish, a new play by writer-actress Cyndi Williams; Cara Mia Theatre's El Presidente y La Mascara de Oro by Danny Daniels; Ground Zero's Bad Roof by Tim Hatcher; and Theatre Quorum's Perchance by Angela Wilson.

One of the funny ones is Art on the Fridge by Valerie Brogan, produced by Wingspan Theatre Company. This one-act of comic vignettes focuses on America's worship of the icebox. Four actors--Paige Reynolds, Susan Sargeant, Regan Adair and Linda Comess--enter and exit through four refrigerator doors.

We get an ode to the icemaker as an icon of success. The fridge, we're told, is the center of the home, "the very heart of democracy." Shame lies in the dirty vegetable crisper. Contents get scrutinized in one sketch by a squad of fridge police.

The best of the scenes introduces a gay man devoted to Marilyn Monroe, whom he calls "an innocent girl born with debilitating glamour." He's acquired her refrigerator at auction and transferred his adulation to the old machine, whose hum comforts him. Regan Adair is sweet and affecting as the Marilyn fan, caressing his beloved appliance with the care an archaeologist would afford a relic unearthed from an Egyptian tomb.

Catch Art on the Fridge when it's performed again at 2 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday or on July 27, 28 or August 2.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner