at the Goodman Theatre Studio

Love stories are just propaganda for an idealized notion of romance. According to this propaganda, two people in love are united by some sort of mysterious, erotic attraction that transcends all other human activity. Love is pure; love is sweet; love conquers all.

But the romantic entanglements I’ve observed and experienced bear almost no resemblance to this model. In real life, romance usually involves doubt, embarrassment, disappointment, humiliation, deception, exploitation, and selfishness. It’s a risky endeavor that sooner or later wounds just about everyone. When a relationship does succeed, patience, perseverance, and honesty usually deserve the credit, not romance.

Still, novels, films, plays, and TV shows continue to put forth the party line. And the propagandists make no distinction between love and morbid dependency, for example, or mere sexual attraction. Yet no one has been willing to speak out and label this propaganda for the nonsense it is.

No one, that is, except David Cale. In Smooch Music, his ingenious solo performance at the Goodman Theatre Studio, he treats romance with refreshing irreverence, blending fantasy, dreams, and anecdotes into a painfully graphic picture of love’s real face.

The script, written by Cale himself, moves in and out of the experiences of different characters, yet Cale manages to maintain a fairly consistent persona, too. Backed by a four-piece jazz band, he performs like a good jazz musician himself, blending discordant tones into an evocative melody with an internal logic all its own. But no matter how far he wanders with his idiosyncratic riffs, Cale keeps returning to a few basic themes.

Embarrassment, for example. “The first time we kissed, our teeth crashed,” says one of Cale’s youthful characters. Another two lovers, on their first date, each went into the bathroom and swallowed a bit of toothpaste. “Our first kiss tasted like Crest with Fluoristan,” he says.

Then there are the twin themes of rejection and humiliation. When a man, overwhelmed by affection, finally declares his love, he is brushed off with the old line: “Intimacy scares the hell out of me.” But his beloved adds, thoughtfully, “Don’t take it personally.” And another man, after making a particularly sweet, sentimental expression of love, is met with the withering retort, “Where did you steal that–from a Hallmark card?”

Another theme Cale returns to again and again is the sheer weirdness of sexual behavior. An adolescent boy wanting to impress his friends uses a vacuum cleaner to produce “love bites” on his neck. “Jesus! He’s had sex again! How do you do it?” they exclaim. And he–or is it another chararcter?–describes a girlfriend who, for no apparent reason, dubbed her diaphragm “Donna Summer.” “Slow down–I have to get Donna,” she would say to him.

Interspersed among these naturalistic episodes are peculiar dreamlike segments; these work subliminally, like good poetry. A man walking down a New York street in the rain comes across a Polaroid picture of a female breast. Another man, appearing out of nowhere, says “Pardon me, I think that’s mine.” Cale also tells about the “alligator”–a man with a mouthful of frightfully white, shiny teeth. “He was a pretty thing when he wasn’t smiling.” Another segment apparently describes a real-life place but has a surreal, hallucinatory quality. In “Talking to You on the Phone Is Better Than Being With You,” Cale tells about a telephone booth on a New York street corner. When the phone rings, you can pick it up and hear a spiel that begins, “Hi, my name is Honey. I just stepped out of the shower and I’m stark naked. . . .”

Throughout his monologue Cale adopts an attitude of wide-eyed innocence that seems to make fun of itself–it’s the-sort of persona that Pee-wee Herman has made famous. In fact, when Cale dances, his wildly awkward movements suggest the immature motor development of a child, which Pee-wee mimics so well.

This persona allows Cale a nonjudgmental veneer that obscures his contempt for romance, but beneath that contempt seems to lurk a latent romantic. There are hints of this along the way–the effusive declarations of love, for example, are delivered with too much sincerity to be totally cynical.

In the final passage, however, Cale reveals his longing, a longing so powerfully suppressed it can emerge only through a dream: He finds a woman lying facedown in a snowy road, so he protects her from the oncoming cars and carries her to safety. Then he tries to melt the frost on her frozen eyes with his hands so they can look at each other. This image–thawing a potential partner–should strike a chord in anyone who has ever longed for romance, and it seems to reveal Cale’s true longing. But then he ends the show with a perfect, inscrutable grin–shy? sarcastic? sincere?–that leaves his attitude open-ended.

The music, by Roy Nathanson, is the ideal complement to Cale’s monologue, because Smooch Music is an antilove song that Cale “sings” with mischievous glee. Yet this is not a song that’s really against love, and it certainly isn’t another maudlin ballad about unrequited love. Instead Cale exposes the dark underside of love–an area scrupulously avoided by the propagandists of romance–and has a good laugh at what he finds there.