Goodman Studio Theatre

“If sex is about an object filling a hole, love is about a hole filling a hole. Emptiness occupies emptiness and becomes fullness.”–Elliot, in Elliot Loves.

Richard and Hedy both hated it. They respected it. They even praised certain aspects of it. But overall, bottom line, they hated it.

This didn’t disturb me. I respect the critics from the Tribune and Sun-Times. I’m even willing to praise certain aspects of them. But overall, bottom line, I feel secure in disagreeing with them. We’re all Americans here.

What disturbed, or at least surprised me was how other people who saw it seemed to line up on it. How neatly they divided in conversation, either sharing the daily critics’ distaste or my more accepting attitude. And for the same reasons, too. It became obvious that there are two kinds of people in the world, and that the way to find out which kind you are is to see Elliot Loves at the Goodman Studio Theatre.

A new play by anxiety’s own cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, Elliot Loves follows the eponymous neurotic through a long night’s wrangling with his extremely nervous lady friend, Joanna–a Memphis-born, twice-divorced real estate broker with two kids and a tic-y way of saying “Piece of cake,” as Elliot notes, “in response to remarks that do not by any stretch of the imagination call for “piece of cake.”‘

Wheedling, needy, judgmental Elliot and brittle, aloof Joanna have been seeing each other for six weeks, and now Elliot’s upped the ante on their relationship by inviting her to meet his three oldest pals–Bobby, Larry, and Phil–at Bobby’s black leather Playboy pad. Joanna gets as far as Bobby’s lobby, but can’t make the trip up the elevator; she flees, and we find ourselves spending an increasingly acrimonious evening with the boys, discovering just exactly how haunted, angry, and plain sick they’ve become in their dealings with women.

The ugliness is pretty well advanced when Joanna shows up after all. And takes control. Playing a wily postfeminist variation on the southern belle, Joanna wraps Elliot’s pals around her rocks glass. Which drives Elliot crazy enough to do something really, really mean. The next we see them, Elliot and Joanna are sitting in their respective apartments, pouring out tumblers full of their respective poisons, and spitting venom back and forth at each other over the phone.

The spitting gives way to negotiation before they’re done; but the play ends inconclusively enough that critics and audience members alike can find room not merely to disagree, but to claim contradictory results. For Richard, Hedy, and others I consulted, Elliot Loves is a deeply bitter, despairing vision of modern romance, in which unlovable inadequates go around clobbering each other with the big sticks they’ve fashioned out of their pain–in much the same way Jacob Marley fashioned chains out of his greed. The piece needs, as Richard Christiansen put it, “to lighten up, to avoid turning sour, to make its characters at least a little more likable, to engage its audience in a slightly less acrid environment and to stop confusing nastiness for reality.”

For me and one or two like me, Elliot Loves is sweet idealism. Hopeful beyond deserving.

The difference, I think, has to do with whether or not you accept Elliot’s definition of love, as given during his opening monologue and quoted at the top of this review. Those who reject it, who insist on seeing love as a something, are also likely to see Feiffer’s play as a cynical denial of the human potential for generosity, for expansiveness, communion, and compassion. For giving ourselves to others. Those who accept it, on the other hand, accept the essential impossibility of love: the absurdity of expecting something to come of what they know is basically a nothing. That it happens anyway–that Elliot and Joanna give any glimmer at all of turning their emotional antimatter into a living, breathing relationship–is a great paradox, and reason for celebration.

Hence, the two kinds of people in the world, and their reactions to Feiffer’s play.

This doesn’t mean I love Elliot Loves. The script’s got big faults. Feiffer comes from a generation that actually read Freud–as opposed to just sort of breathing him in with the rest of the culture, the way neurasthenic boom babies like me do. Consequently, he tends to view humanity as a collection of interacting syndromes. That tendency, along with his long experience at turning syndromes into cartoons, makes much of Elliot Loves play like a series of extraordinarily clever psych class demonstrations: Everything’s too perfect. Too much in analytical order. Control freak Joanna even keeps a notebook in which she’s listed stories and subjects Elliot likes to have her talk about.

Still, like I say, the demonstrations are extraordinarily clever. And Mike Nichols’s production projects an awesome poise. The entire cast–from Anthony Heald’s exhaustingly compulsive Elliot and Christine Baranski’s tight, tough Joanna, to David Pierce’s shell-shocked Phil, Oliver Platt’s nasty/funny Larry, and Bruce A. Young’s heavily blocked Bobby–is perfect. I liked Elliot Loves, even if I couldn’t love it. Of course, you’ll probably disagree.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Leonard.