Murray Schisgal’s comedy “LUV” is, as the alert reader might suspect, about love, even passionate love, but don’t expect any moon in June or till death do us part nonsense.
Actually, “LUV” works best as an anti-love play, and, after seeing it, any starry-eyed boy or girl might opt for a celibate life of devotion, if only their parents would let them.
Before seeing the show at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, a ticketholder would be well advised to check out the book at a library (for younger folks unfamiliar with such obsolete terms, look it up on Google) and read the preface by Walter Kerr, then the theater critic for the late New York Herald Tribune.
“LUV” premiered on Broadway in 1964, a time when the avant-garde, according to Kerr, wallowed in “self dramatization, in romantic self-pity. … See how drained I am, how devastated, the squirming near-cadaver says, proud of his position as the Man Who Has Been Most Badly Treated.
“Where is the spotlight that will display me as victim?” Kerr continues. “The universe may be silent, but I will not be. Hear my moan. Isn’t it something, really something, how I am ravaged?”
By taking this very sentiment to its absurd extreme, Schisgal has written a play whose puncturing of such pretensions may not feel as fresh as 50 years ago, but which retains considerable wit and humor.
The play’s three characters, Harry Berlin, Milt Manville and Ellen, the object of both men’s love and loathing, are quite obviously Jewish New Yorkers, à la Neil Simon, although the ethnicity and locale are never mentioned.
Harry is a neurotic nebbish, and the two others are not far behind, though to go further into their symptoms and the ingenious plotline would spoil the fun.
However, they share a common leitmotif — Nobody knows the suffering I have borne — and they compete fiercely for the title of the most put-upon human being in Gotham. For example:
The two men reminisce about their respective childhoods.
Milt: What did you used to get for breakfast?
Harry: A glass filled with two-thirds water and one-third milk.
Milt: Coffee grounds, that’s what I got.
Harry: With sugar?
Milt: Not on your life. I ate it straight, like oatmeal.
The original Broadway production of “LUV” was directed by Mike Nichols and must have been a howl with actors the likes of Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.
However, the current revival, presented in collaboration with the West Coast Jewish Theatre and directed by Howard Teichman, gives the audience its money’s worth.
Particularly nimble as Harry, mentally and physically, is Michael Goldstrom, who bears a notable resemblance to a young Charlie Chaplin, especially when outfitted with a cane.
Betsy Zajko as Ellen bemoans the misfortune of being smarter than any man around, not a major feat, and Rob Roy Cesar as Milt rounds out the ménage.
The clever stage design by Jeff G. Rack includes a bridge from which Harry tries to commit suicide at regular intervals, and a lamppost from which he tries to hang himself, also unsuccessfully.
“LUV” plays Wednesdays through Sundays until June 26 at the Reuben Cardova Theatre on the Beverly Hills High School campus. For information and reservations, go to www.theatre40.org, or call (310) 364-0535.
“Nazi Hunter-Simon Wiesenthal” runs Sunday through Tuesday evenings. For more information, call (310) 364-3606.