at the Theatre Building

Love Seen is not just another comedy about boring, middle-class, white couples trying to get it on. It’s all those comedies rolled into one. Can you stand it? Well, that’s the question. I feel like I’ve just lived through the complete works of Love, American Style and The Love Boat, as produced by the creators of The Dating Game. Banal? Trite? Mind-bogglingly stupid? These are mere words, pale in comparison to the event itself. If anything, Marci Nechtow Rubin’s new play, Love Seen, has forever taught me the difference between just plain bad theater and ambitiously bad theater.

This is the story of lonesome singles coming together through a dating service called Video Intro. Susan and Mark (played by Liz Pazik and Mark Robbins) are the partners/sales reps/masterminds of Video Intro. Susan has a master’s in psychology; Mark is a hip, rogue, cavalier kind of guy. Between episodes of frustrated mutual attraction — straight out of Moonlighting or Cheers — Susan and Mark play matchmaker with their clients in a series of idiotic encounters that are meant to be either comic or poignant, as the case may be. In the end, of course, the couples sort themselves out romantically. Well, three out of four anyway, with the fourth couple attaining that brave plateau of mutual respect that allows them to part ways, wistfully, with a sigh for what might have been. The Indians call it maize.

Love Seen is the most comprehensive, terminally cute treatment of this subject I’ve seen. Not only is it derivative of a quarter century of witless sitcoms, but it has a theme song (“It’s Love I’ve Seen” — words and music by Joel Shapiro) and an astonishing catalog of dumb jokes. For instance . . .

After a strenuous night of schmoozing at some benefit or other, Mark complains, “My feet are killing me,” to which Susan shoots back, “I’m surprised it’s not your back.” Get it? And later, Janice, while commiserating with Barbara, says, “If he wanted space, he should have been an astronaut.” It’s too rich. And Vivian, the secretary at Video Intro, answers the phone at one point with a “Hi, Mother. No, I haven’t gotten engaged since this morning.” And Barbara, discussing her divorce, says, “The only thing I had to reconcile was my checkbook.” And Jerry, a dentist with an acute case of “divorcitis,” confesses that his wife “found someone else to fill her cavities.” Stop me, I can’t stand it.

Then there are the sight gags, including a middle-aged swinger in a Hawaiian shirt, the Joan Rivers finger-down-the-throat gag, even a little bridge mix down the blouse, everything except, thank God, the baggy boxer shorts with the hearts on them. But the two most inane routines are found early in the first act. One is a comic duel between Susan and Mark, involving a potted cactus brought onstage for no other apparent purpose. The other is when Vivian drops an armload of videocassettes (of male clients) and quips, as she picks them up, “I’m picking up men.” I tell you, there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.

Laurel Cronin’s direction is the perfect complement to this script. Cronin orchestrates this show so that the feed lines alternate with the punch lines with metronomic predictability. The best illustration of this technique is a bar scene where the guys sit at one table, sniggering and chortling, and the gals at another, trading lovelorn hints from Heloise. Lights up on one table, lights down on the other, and the same thing again, and again, back and forth, and within each mini-scene there’s that feed line/punch line pacing. It’s relentless. Wheels within wheels. The Chinese water torture.

The thing that’s so deadening, even condescending, about this type of comic pacing is that it preempts the audience’s prerogative to respond as it will. The audience is told when to laugh, as sure as if the play provided a laugh track. That’s why I feel that the similarity between Love Seen and a host of TV sitcoms isn’t superficial. This play requires a passive audience, one that can’t think, or is too tired to think, an audience that relies on the security of being told what is funny.

Maybe you go to the theater because television isn’t satisfying your cultural appetite. In that case — and there’s a major irony here — you’ll find that the best parts of Love Seen are on video. The Video Intro dating service, you see, operates by taking videos of its clients — interviewing them about their ideal mates — and then showing those videos to other clients, who then decide if they want to chance a date. Neat, huh? Anyway, two of these half dozen or so video profiles are great. Jessica Grossman plays a nasal-voiced JAP with neurotic eye movements and a penetrating creepiness. And Gerard Pedrini plays a hefty, zestful jeweler who sums it all up with “I love to love.” Put these two performances together and you get less than two minutes of truly fine acting (projected on an eight-foot screen) out of an entire evening of theater.

Not to say that the eight live actors aren’t professionals of one sort or another. No doubt about that. They all make a stab at jury-rigging a character out of the lines they’ve been assigned. Yet they’re uniformly unsympathetic as characters, and bland as actors. They’re stereotypes, with the possible exception of Liz Pazik, who seems to use her role as an in-depth seminar in acting for soap operas.

Regardless, the key element in a romantic comedy is the chemistry between the male and female leads. Pazik and Robbins have none. The Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd syndrome, no matter how zealously contrived, fails to crank up. When, at the romantic conclusion, Mark invites Susan into his office to “negotiate” — her dragging him by his necktie — you’re only glad to see the door shut behind them.

I guess you have to be there, and pay $18 to see a full-scale production of this thing, in order to appreciate it to the maximum. Only in that atmosphere could you feel royally ripped-off, and witness the not-so-profound embarrassment of Equity actors making a buck the hard way. Where else, I ask you, can you find the American theater pumping such formaldehyde? Love Seen. Don’t miss it! With any luck, it may be the end of an era.