Love, Love, Love: Attempt at description, Act 2b [spoilers] #richardarmitage
Continued from here. Be aware of previous caveats.
The remainder of Act Two is much more directed than the first half, with two main themes: Kenneth and Sandra’s discovery of their mutual infidelities, and the consumption of Rose’s birthday cake, Sandra’s startling announcement, and the act’s abrupt denouement. (So hopefully my writing about it won’t be so aimless.) The immediate next section, with Kenneth and Sandra hammering each other, would not be funny at all if you just read the script and even though people keeping laughing during it, it does drain a lot of the positive energy of the play up until now. My contention here is that if the mood is very high at the halfway point (i.e., if the audience is still seeing Rose as the stereotypical offended teenager and Sandra’s parenting as amusing), the rest of the act works better. If not, the negotiation of the infidelities is much less funny and the audience doesn’t really entirely know what to do with the end of the act (even if they continue laughing to a greater or lesser extent).
As Rosie summits the stairs, Sandra returns to stage left to sit at the far side of the table. She lights a cigarette, I think for the first time in this act. Kenneth moves to the complete opposite of the room. For much of the next bit, he’s pacing up and down at stage right between the bookshelf and the end of the stage with “harried paterfamilias” gestures (hand on neck, hand through hair, wine glass in hand, hyperextended knees locked with hips tilted forward and hands in pocket).
Kenneth reproaches Sandra for her absence; she doesn’t want to admit she’s in the wrong. She strikes back that he shouldn’t have left Jamie alone (laughs for their disagreement over how to assess him — weird for her vs. bright for him). Kenneth notes that he could have gone next door, but Sandra disagrees. This section underlines how far she’s moved from 60s values, as first she says that she doesn’t want Jamie there because they’re loud (laughs to Kenneth for “remind you of anyone?” and to Sandra for her insulting of the neighbors) — but then it seems like she almost implies that the neighbors don’t belong because they’re not white, though she backs off. Mercifully, the audience does not laugh at this. Kenneth references the bill for school fees that has arrived, again walking away from us and massaging his neck.
In the next segment, Kenneth is trying to dig into why exactly Sandra was so late. Sandra stays at the table, but Kenneth works his way closer and closer to her as he asks more and more questions. This is not a comfortable conversation, but Sandra keeps getting the laughs for her skilled use of ridicule to hide her defensiveness. Sandra gets laughs for her percussive delivery of “Chris again,” her joke about how they had to sit at the meeting b/c standing didn’t work, and her statement that a meeting implies being together. Kenneth won’t let go (he’s not getting laughs at this point; Armitage is fairly worked up at this point, I found), and finally Sandra turns her ridicule full force on him when she makes fun of him for implying she’s having an affair (big laughter). Kenneth continues to chase her verbally; she gets laughs for every intentional misunderstanding she spouts. Finally, he has made it to a position more or less next to her and says, “how many gins” and she doesn’t know. Laughter some nights, surprise one night. He walks straight across the room to stand in front of the television and as he says, “that’s the worst possible answer to that question” (huge laughter, and more as he guesses numbers). But then they stop, as Kenneth expresses his opinion that Sandra is “off the leash at the moment” (p. 82).
Moment of silence. Sandra appears to capitulate — she moves back toward stage left and sits on the sofa previously occupied by Rose and then Kevin — first in the middle, then in the stage right corner. She wants to have a conversation, she asks him “what if I was?” and again this drawing of questions out like a string gets laughs. Most nights, the audience still finds her absolute avoidance of any need to look at herself charming, and of course more so when it doesn’t involve her children.
But Kenneth’s mood is shifting. It’s the moment in the play when I potentially have the most sympathy for the character. His “concern” for Rose moves me less because it’s all about his picture of himself, but here, when he’s representing his own concerns in the most open way he has all the way through, even if it’s egotistical, there’s something sad about it. It’ as if he’s realized in this moment, in frustration, that all their “openness” has never been that profound.
Kenneth loops around the sofa at the point where he asks if she feels trapped, sits down, and they face each other. Sandra repeats her fateful sentiment from Act One: “We’ve always said we’ve always said there’s nothing worse than being stuck. […] Because we’re going to die” (p. 83). Kenneth intelligently takes this at seems to be meant, a strong hint, and asks her what she’s done. No real answer. But this is all moving really quickly. He continues to push on my earnestness buttons when he says of her remark, “well, that’s true, death approaches, a rare admission on your part” (p. 84).
The script gives Sandra a chance to move to this level of sincerity when it lets Sandra say that her appearance is making her feel old and I kind of want to sympathize (this is a feeling I have myself these days — I only let myself catch glimpses of myself out of the corner of eyes but they are shocking) but it’s hard for me to switch from my previous perception of her. Kenneth gets laughs for harping about her smoking, but the comic energy starts to drain from the scene at this point. Ken walks stage left to stand in front of the table, then turns halfway back toward Sandra and says, “I’ll go first.” He admits he’s slept with someone else. Audience silence. Sandra is flabbergasted, clearly blindsided. Kenneth then says, “your turn” in the same sort of teasing way he said “busy” in Act One. Huge, huge laughter, although it may also include relief from the audience that maybe this scene is turning back to comedy. [ETA: At least on some nights, when she doesn’t respond to him, he also exclaims, “SHIT!” and flings his arm out, which also gets huge laughs.] She’s again searching for words, when Kenneth prods, “I’m not the only one, am I?” Laughter.
He continues to push at her verbally and she continues to insist the conversation is hypothetical, as he crosses front of stage back toward the sofa. Now she’s moved to the stage left position on the sofa and he’s at stage right, sitting next to her. They alternately face forward and look at each other through the next section as she offers him some wine. The peregrinations of the beverage receptacles in this play are epic — they move around almost as much as the actors do. I thought I’d try to put in here an account of where they show up, but I can’t remember all of them, unfortunately. However, it’s often hilarious when one of the characters moves one of them because it’s usually an avoidance gesture and the audience finds them hilarious. As we do here, when Sandra offers him some wine, then tops her own glass up extravagantly.
In the next segment of the play, Kenneth admits the details of his infidelity, a one night stand named “Frankie.” These exchanges are delivered with incredible speed, with each character getting laughs here, derived from disbelief (did Kenneth really know Frankie was a girl) and obvious contrary to fact statements (Sandra insisting she’s not angry) bitter truths (Kenneth’s assessment that Sandra is never the victim) and Kenneth’s inability to recall details about Frankie and Sandra’s vicious assessment of same. I realize you can’t possibly find this funny from reading the script but go back to the clip of Sandra offering her daughter a glass of wine and imagine this kind of excessive, almost slapstick delivery of these lines from each of them. The atmosphere of laughter escalates again — the delivery means that even as the truth becomes worse and worse, the threat of conflict we can’t laugh at recedes in similar proportion.
A pause as Sandra offers Kenneth a cigarette (he must have quit smoking — and I take an idle moment to wonder what Armitage’s own relationship with tobacco is these days). Very comic moment as Kenneth first calls her stupid (editorial comment — this is another word where Armitage’s pronunciation gives me a lot of glee — “styupid”) and then lights the cigarette, casts the lighter down, and sucks in the fumes like they are oxygen for a suffocating man. Sandra rises and moves stage left, toward the table and its other side. From the other side of the room, she continues the interrogation about “Frankie.” Laughs again for Kenneth’s evasiveness and the bitter turn that Sandra’s questions take (“from the little you remember?”) and Kenneth’s admission that Frankie was “fresh” and “smelt different.” Sandra now flings accusations at him that also get a bunch of laughter even though they are really wounded, again because every piece of Ryan’s delivery is slapstick, over the top, and this isn’t even the summit of that mood for this act.
Sandra screams “TAKE IT BACK” (p. 89) just as Rose pounds down the stairs. Automatic laughter for the physical comedy of the offended teenager who chews her parents out for yelling while she was on the phone, interrupting her conversation with Mark and setting up a situation where she doesn’t want to go back to school. First she’s yelling at Sandra, but then she turns stage right and sees Ken smoking and says “What, you’re smoking now?”
All three of them look at each other for a second.
Rose has come and gone like a humorous squall; Kenneth and Sandra resume their conversation. Kenneth rises and walks back and forth between where he’s seated in the picture above, along the path past the television, to roughly the same position stage right in front of the coffee table.
It has occurred to Kenneth to wonder why Sandra isn’t really angry, why her outrage is so loudly protesting, and realizes that he’s not only been manipulated into the conversation but also into the infidelity. Questionable sentiment, but we laugh. Laughs for Sandra when she concedes that Kenneth is not like most men, who are “sagging” by this point. (I think that’s obvious why.) A bit of honest contemplation between the two before Kenneth says “we live in Reading. Something’s gone wrong” (p. 90). Strong laughter again. Kenneth is searching for some admission from Sandra, then, but she decides — wanting to avoid the conversation — that it’s time to have the birthday cake. He pressures her, as they both walk back to rear stage center, where the paintings are — Sandra, to scream up the stairs; Kenneth, to get the admission he feels he deserves.
Laughs for Sandra’s screaming at Jamie and Rosie; also laughs for the fact that she screams up the stairs and then immediately switches demeanor to speak normally to Kenneth. She tries to get past him to get the cake, and he blocks her way. Laughter for their physical and verbal standoff. She gradually escalates her tone with Kenneth to the same level of her screaming up the stairs until Kenneth forces her to admit the adultery. They are staring at each other and then Sandra folds: “Yes. Fresh meat. [Laughter]. Four months. Exactly. [Laughter] He’s good. It helps [Huge laughter]” (p. 92). Just as the laughter subsides Sandra asks him if he’s satisfied and harvests the same level of audience response for her apportionment of blame: “Good. Now we’re really in trouble. Well done” (p. 92).
Jamie comes downstairs, and the three move stage left, over to the table. Jamie sits down in the chair closest to the back on the left edge of the stage. Kenneth sits opposite. Sandra stands between them. Laughs for Sandra’s offer of wine, and then a cigarette, to Jamie, and for Ken’s resistance to this possibility. Sandra insists Jamie already smokes (laughter) and Jamie denies it (laughter) and Sandra belligerently pushes one on him, sort of Bette Midler screaming style (more laughter). Jamie asks for a lighter (laughter) and then lights the cigarette like an old pro (more laughter).
Sandra goes to get the cake, pausing at the foot of the stairs to yell up them, stage left rear. She’s still not moving with the greatest smoothness, between heels and alcohol, and gets huge laughter for her heavy scream up the stairs and the fact that she’s ordering Rosie not to sulk in the brashest of tones, but also for her funny crouch. She then exits, stage right rear.
Then a hugely funny episode of mostly physical comedy:
And for a few moments they have a sort of smoke cloud / smoke ring oneupsmanship contest. This is a vamp while the cake is being prepared and Rose comes downstairs, so it has variable length (also depending on how long the audience keeps laughing at them). It’s virtually impossible to see fully from the right side of the seats (middle of the theater to far stage left), unfortunately. I only saw it unimpeded the first night I was there.
Ken warns them:
They all begin singing “Happy Birthday” to Rose as Sandra approaches the table. As Sandra re-enters, her coat is off and her arms are bare, as if she’s ready to do battle — and her shirt is half-untucked, reflecting her disheveled level of cognition after so much wine. I found amusing — they actually sing in tune with each other (hmm, did they all have singing training at some point? wink). No family I know does this. Or maybe it’s because they’re all so into music. Another thing I found amusing: Armitage usually joins in on the second line; he seems to be waiting to match pitch; sometimes he matches pitch in his upper octave and sometimes in his lower, it’s not consistent.
Laughter at the little brother antics as Rose halfheartedly / resentfully blows out the candles and Jamie finishes the job for her.
So now we get to the “stirring finish” of Act Two. If you’ve been reading my elliptical remarks about the play in comments before these long descriptions, you know that I said there’s a point in the play that strained the bounds of credibility for me, such that I could only imagine that it would have to be played in an absurd style. Now we’re there. What they do to make this work involves the games that they play with the cake and the cake server and the frosting, so that laughing at Sandra’s drunk behavior also makes her bizarre reading of the world — the self-centeredness of her worldview is the most evident it will be in the entire play, here — seem amusing.
How to imagine this: Sandra is standing at the end of the table, speaking in a loud, blowsy voice to everyone. She doesn’t slur her speech, but the recent stumbling suggests she is drunk enough to have lost any inhibition on her speech she’s ever had. She gestures around with her arms and waves the cake server around. Her speech is a combination of self-centeredness, phrases of bourgeois politeness, pretentiousness, odd assumptions about her children, and a weird version of family therapy “everyone will be happier if we separate.” Yes: because this is the moment at which Sandra decides for Kenneth that they will separate and then announces it to everyone.
Sandra praises Jamie for smoking in front of his mother (laughs). She begins to cut the cake and plonks the pieces down in front of everyone, serving one piece to everyone. The pieces are gigantic and crumbs fly everywhere. She gets her hands full of frosting.
S: Now as you might’ve heard [ostentatious pause, laughter], your father and I have been having a conversation [plonks down cake in front of Rose, laughter] an adult conversation but since you’re both grown up now in your way tonight I think we should lay it out for you [plonks down cake in front of Jamie, laughter] I think we should lay it out for you what do you think Ken? [laughter]
K: No, I don’t think we should actually / Sandra. [laughter; her speech begins as he’s finishing]
S: Your father went and found someone else and had sex with her [plonks down cake in front of Kenneth; laughter]. Her name was Frankie. [laughter]
S: [continuing in a breathless, laughing tone] She was young. [laughter] It was revenge as he thought I was having an affair myself which if we’re honest [laughter] if we’re really laying this all out for you in the middle of the night, well …but it seems that both of us have felt in some way frustrated and we’ve found a way out — does everyone have a piece of cake? [big laughter]No one replies.K: [strangled tone of voice] Can we talk about this / later — [next speech starts before he’s done; laughter]S: Now we still both love each other, don’t worry about that. But we both feel trapped, and we never intended to be in this domestic situation we are both feeling that maybe human beings were not designed to be monogamous do you both know what the word means? [huge laughter]Neither answers.We both feel that maybe sleeping around is our natural state, so that in itself might have been alright but the issue — and Ken do correct me — [laughter at the pretentious way she says this] the issue is trust [Sandra waves the dirty cake server in Kenneth’s direction and he looks concerned; laughter]; We can’t be lying to each other. That would be pointless. [laughter; Sandra waves the dirty cake server even more expansively and Kenneth pulls back a bit, unconsciously; laughter].As you grow up, both of you, you’ll learn that in love as everything else there is no such thing as a happy ending [Sandra waves the dirty cake server aggressively, and Kenneth pulls back, apparently threatened. Biggest laughter at this sight gag.] S: So the question we have is–R: [outraged, on verge of tears] Why are you telling us this? [uproarious laughter]
S: We’re animals and what happens happens so the conclusion your father and I have come to [gestures toward Kenneth]S: We didn’t want to mention it to you until we were sure but having talked about it I think we’ve come to a joint decision now haven’t we?K: [totally astonished, blindsided, voice high and strained] A divorce? [big laughter]S: I know it must be difficult but it’s the right thing.K: Sandra SHUT / UP. [big laughter]
R: [interrupting, tone as before] / I don’t want to hear THIS! [big laughter]
[and I think it’s at this point that Jamie begins shoveling in the cake like there’s no tomorrow]
Mike Bartlett, Love, Love, Love (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015), pp. 95-96.
At this point Sandra descends into family therapy / self-fulfillment jargon, which gets a lot of laughs in itself (I suspect because anyone in the audience older than me — and that is probably 80 percent of the audience — remembers the verbiage that went along with this), but Sandra’s got three really great sight gags left, because her hands are still covered in frosting and she hasn’t had any cake yet. As Sandra enumerates how no one can tell us anything, she puts her hand on her son’s head.
Kenneth concedes briefly that he might be happier divorced, and this, with Sandra’s statement that the children will be happier, too, causes Rose to jerk up, cross in front of the table and thunder up the stairs, stage left rear. [laughter] Jamie grabs Rose’s cake and starts on it, too [laughter] Sandra stands behind Jamie, crosses her arms over him, and uses his shirt to wipe off her hands, finally, as she tells Kenneth that Jamie is happier for knowing.
Sandra then sits down in Rose’s abandoned chair and parenthetically refers to her conviction that Rose is sexually active with her boyfriend. Laughter.
Jamie interjects that Mark has taken up with Sarah Franks (I wondered briefly why it’s always the Jewish girl). The audience knows this, obviously, but Sandra and Kenneth have been oblivious all night. We’re not sure how to feel about this, but Sandra saves us with the last sight gag of the evening:
They look at each other. There’s a scream from upstairs. Kenneth and Sandra look at each other. Kenneth goes first, Sandra follows. They run up the stairs. We hear pounding on a door and calls out from the parents — Kenneth, in concern; Sandra, in “stop this nonsense” tone and then “now dear calm down” tone (this is different from the script I have, in which only Kenneth speaks after this point). As they parents bang, Jamie continues to smoke calmly, by himself at the table. He grabs the wine bottle, walks over the cassette deck and puts the cassette tape back in and we hear “She Bangs the Drums” resume. He jumps back on the table and drinks from the bottle and resumes the lip synch — but this time his lips are contorted in one solid cry of visceral pain.
Curtain falls on Act Two. Applause. Cue playlist for final interval.
At this point, to describe varying audience reactions to the end of the play and comment on how they are triggered, I feel like I need an extended editorial comment, so I’m going to break again here and grab something to eat.