The Independent EyeLoveplay

A middle-aged female couple, Liddie and Janelle, deeply committed to one another, face a crisis over differing views of “open relationships.” A young man and woman are shaken by an unplanned pregnancy; the young woman, in a search for roots, locates her natural mother, the free-wheeling half of the elder duo, who’s not the conventional image of Mom.

Written by Conrad Bishop & Elizabeth Fuller, based on improvisations by the original cast of Flora Coker, Elizabeth Fuller, Tim Cooley, and Julia Prudhomme.
Directed & designed by Conrad Bishop
Music by Michele Mercure
Two acts; 3w/1m; multi-location unit set.

Produced by The Independent Eye, premiering June 2, 1993 at Old City Stage Works (Philadelphia, PA); revived the following season, opening on Sept. 17, 1994. 35 performances.

From the program:

For us, Loveplay has been a risk.

As a company oriented toward “progressive” styles, the borrowing from popular genres is a bit like letting a new friend see your yearbook photo—it’s valid, it’s you, but My God, that haircut! Our premise is that the revitalization of stock genres, like raising the dead, can sometimes be worth the effort.

As playwrights long dedicated to charting our various characters’ freeway trips to hell, it’s a radical challenge to write a realistic Happy Ending. In fact, it’s hell to wind up happy, and we’ve resorted to a few devices you’ll recognize from those sure-fire moneymakers that serious playwrights all hate and envy: a more farcical tone as we wrap up loose ends, a few “I-suddenly-realized” speeches, a little music. So very possibly the end is merely wishful thinking, as far-fetched as Shakespeare’s, but it’s wishful thinking we deeply believe in.

As promoters, we’ve floundered our way through a half dozen PR “images.” Too frivolous? Too serious? Too cute? Too meaningful? Depending on your info source, you may be coming to see “a new comedy about sex and warped drawers,” or “a drama about sexuality and commitment,” etc. It’s probably our immense societal ambivalence about sexuality that leads us to coin words like “sexuality.”

As citizens of a society obsessed with sex and the free-form tangle of sexual politics, we risk being accused of many things: prurience, exploitation, homosexuality, heterosexuality, or just not being sexy enough. But we’re interested in the fact that sex happens one person at a time, and that as the most personal mark of identity—except perhaps our well-concealed middle names—it’s also the most volatile, most extremely regulated, and most subject to defeating all regulation.

And since we write what’s very personal, very central to us as people, I suppose we risk launching a guessing game: What’s reall, what’s fictional, what’s true-life intimate detail and what’s flat lies? To be honest, the characters are composites of people we’ve known, or of people we’ve been, stories we’ve been told, fact and fantasy from the actors, and so on. We believe it’s all true.

Which of the absolutely opposite views expounded by the characters do we share? Suffice it to say that while every Texas chili aficionado swears by his/her own recipe, the truly gifted chili-maker varies the recipe for the guest, the ingredients, and the cooking pot that’s handy at the time. And it’s all in the eating.

As for risks, that’s what friends are for.
—Bishop & Fuller

Like relationships in life—whether straight or gay, monogamous or “open”—the relationships in Loveplay cause pain when they give the most satisfaction, call for trust when trust is most difficult to give, and rely most on love when love isn’t the only answer. At stake is the definition of “family,” a word that can no longer be defined at all conventionally. Nor can the words that are normally used to define it, words like “truth,” “honesty” and “fidelity.” . . .

Fuller, Bishop (who directs), and the other actors (who helped develop the script) tell this story by alternating dramatic arias, duets and quartets, with occasional antiphonal choruses in which all four give voice to their turn-ons, their turn-offs, their food fantasies, and the things they say during sex. The sequence of alternating duets that ends the first act—two loving couples coming unhinged before our eyes—is painful to watch and impossible not to. . . .

Loveplay is a gem, as true and as funny and as moving as a play about modern love can be. Don’t miss it.

—Cary Mazer, Philadelphia City Paper

Loveplay’s depiction of mother-daughter matters and the sweaty, clumsy, low-comic aspects of love and sex are so precise that when the script starts to pile on complications in the second act, it seems neither soap nor sitcom but just little burrs under the saddle of life.

—Elizabeth Finkler, Philadelphia Welcomat

Bishop and Fuller have crafted a very intimate exploration of love through two relationships that resist stereotyping and defy labels. . . .

Afterward, one realizes that the happy ending is appropriately realistic. The characters in Loveplay will doubtless face new crises, so the cheerful finale, like most happy plateaus in life, is only a brief hiatus, not happy-ever-after.

We come away with an appreciation of the four as genuine people whose troubles are like ours though the particulars not, whose bumbling struggles for happiness are much like our own.

—Mark Cofta, Main Line Times

It’s a chock-filled evening of emotional confrontations, declarations and sheer quirkiness thrown in to boot. With the sharp, well-written dialogue between the four, you are immediately drawn into their lives, taking an instant liking and concern, watching as the four search for a common ground, for love and acceptance, and a degree of stability in their relationships.

There is not a lot of “action,” so to speak, in Loveplay, but instead wonderfully rich character development and interaction coupled with thought-provoking dialogue that pulls you in so that you almost forget that you are watching a play. . . .

I wouldn’t dare give away the ending of Loveplay, but I will say that it’s not necessarily your conventional “happy forever after” type ending either, but more of a case of actual reality which in essence is what Loveplay is all about. It’s not about anyone extraordinary or infamous—it’s just about people like you and me, told through a tightly-written, exceptionally acted performance that you will most definitely enjoy.

—Greg Northam, Philadelphia Gay News

You suspect that things are going to be just fine in Loveplay, which the Independent Eye is offering through June 27 at its new home in Old City, right from the very early moment when Julia Prudhomme, playing the young mate of a bohemian carpenter, turns to the audience and confides a bit about herself.

She’s an ordinary sort of woman, she says. She honors the Earth and the creatures thereon but she’s no radical. “I don’t want the entire feminist agenda in my cereal bowl by Tuesday.”

What a lovely sentence that is—and how easy it would have been to express the sentiment in some utterly prosaic, just-the-facts sort of way. But Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller, who make up the Independent Eye (they write the productions, cast and direct them, and even take tickets at the door), simply don’t think in prosaic terms. Judging from this play and their earlier puppet piece, Rash Acts, I’d guess they haven’t examined an idea from just one perspective in their lives. What’s the point of settling for vanilla when pistachio and almond-mocha are available for the choosing?

Choice, in fact, is what Loveplay is all about. “Why, from the age of three, do we have to choose?” someone grumps later in the play. “It’s simply eliminating options.” Loveplay is full of options, or alternatives, at least, which aren’t quite the same thing. Sometimes the characters merely array themselves in a circle and recite lists of the things they find pleasant or irksome about making love, eating, and other sensual pleasures. The effect recalls the first “snapshot” in Rash Acts, in which two people wring variations on the words, “I want . . .”

But there are those, like Melia, the carpenter’s lady, who neither require nor want so many alternatives. Melia is quite content, for instance, with an old-fashioned heterosexual, plain-vanilla relationship. And although she has given her reluctant blessing to her mate’s nocturnal forays in search of men, she neither endorses nor understands his need for such varied experience. The same is true of Janelle, a middle-aged lesbian whose partner, Liddie, regularly ventures out with both men and women.

Fuller and Bishop bring these households together when Melia identifies Liddie as the mother who gave her up for adoption. The play then proceeds to shuttle between the two couples as each attempts to quantify the amount of choice it can tolerate and still survive. This brings up such related issues as honesty in personal relationships, which prickly Janelle considers overrated (“decent people,” she says, do just fine with “cheating and lying and subterfuge”), as well as the difficulty of simply figuring out what people want.

Tim, the carpenter, finds this last problem particularly vexatious. At one trying moment, he throws up his hands and proclaims, “If you all were basswood, I’d know how to handle this.”

Meanwhile, the characters wrestle with such extraordinary matters as childbirth (Melia is pregnant) and such mundane ones as paying the tax man. Liddie, who sells real estate, is having trouble keeping her records in order, and Melia, who programs computers, suggests that the older woman maintain her books electronically. But, Liddie protets, she bought a program for that purpose and it wasn’t any good.

“Programs can be modified,” Melia says. A program “can be anything you want it to be.”

So, of course, can a life or a relationship. By the end of Loveplay enough modification has taken place so that the play’s two unions will endure—shakily, to be sure, and perhaps only for a while—as will the unorthodox quartet of a family that we’ve seen take shape over the course of the evening. As for the central question of how many alternatives are enough, Bishop and Fuller refuse to choose up sides. They’re observers and portraitists, not therapists.

Which brings me back to where I began—to the felicitous dialogue that informs this gentle comedy from start to finish. The people in Loveplay are uncommonly articulate. They seem to take the choices afforded by language as seriously as they take everything else. And because they expend so much care and discrimination on what they have to say, they’re unusually revealing of what makes themselves tick.

When Melia talks about herself and the “feminist agenda,” for instance, she’s not just describing a political stance. She’s telling us, through her wry metaphor and evident use of irony, what manner of person she is: a person who, even as she professes herself to be ordinary, betrays a sophistication and humor that aren’t ordinary at all. Which suggests, in turn, that either she’s being very sneaky or she hasn’t as firm a grasp on her identity as she thinks she does.

As the play proceeds, we learn a lot more about Melia and the rest of this oddly matched quartet from what they say and how they say it. Quite often they surprise us; perhaps they surprise even themselves. Take Liddie, who is far and away the bluntest and coarsest of these adventurers on the seas of sex and love. Here she is talking to Tim about Janelle, who’s threatening to leave their relationship.

What is it about Janelle? Tim asks.

“She is springtime,” Liddie says.

She is springtime. It’s such a simple, declarative sentence—particularly coming from this woman whose gaze is so firmly fixed on her own prerogatives—that it takes your breath away. Yet even as it does, it furnishes another piece of the evolving puzzle that a good play ought to be. If it seems inconsistent with what we already know, that’s because we still have a lot more to learn—more than we’ll ever manage in two hours in the theater. A good play ought to suggest that kind of richness, too.

Loveplay is decidedly a good play and the Independent Eye, which moved here from Lancaster earlier this year, is decidedly a welcome addition to the Philadelphia theater scene.

—Clifford A. Ridley, Philadelphia Inquirer