Playwright Norm Foster rests his hopes for The Love List on its out-of-this-world premise, depositing an inexplicable phenomenon into an otherwise-normal world and charging his characters with making sense of the mystery. In the Tipping Point Theatre production, director Lynn Lammers pushes a luminary cast of three to unearth comedy both within and well beyond the text. For viewers unfamiliar with the shopworn dictum Acting Is Reacting, here is exhibit A+.
In the tradition of the milestone birthday, self-assured Leon (Wayne David Parker) makes much of unassuming Bill’s (Dave Davies) fiftieth. His gift is an unconventional matchmaking service: list your ideal mate’s ten most desired qualities, submit it to the old gypsy woman, and meet your match. The two fill out the list together amid much quibbling, providing an initial scene of pat exposition that establishes Bill’s lonely-nice-guy shtick and Leon’s predatory carnality, the former’s humiliating divorce and the latter’s waning infidelities, as well as their solid friendship of opposites. No sooner do sound designer Julia Garlotte and lighting designer Joel Klain weave in one gentle suggestion that something strange is afoot, but a knock on the door in the wee hours of that same night reveals a stranger (Tina Gloss-Finnell) with the name of an old flame of Bill’s, uncanny knowledge of and closeness to him, and ten suspiciously desirable character traits — as if upon request.
Much of the remainder of the play simply concerns making sense of this Justine, who makes herself at home in Bill’s apartment and rolls out a seamless pretense of being his longtime girlfriend. Gloss-Finnell escalates the cognitive dissonance by freely interacting with her environment, for which their surroundings (in the form of set design by Dennis Crawley and properties by Natividad Salgado) give her plenty of fodder. Adding to the confusion is Bill’s carefully scripted and sweetly executed lack of resistance; even in the face of something deeply weird, Davies’s performance makes rationalizing the inexplicable in order to enjoy a tailor-made relationship seem like the natural course of action. It falls to Leon to expose the disquieting extent of this fantasy, which Parker does with an amusing blend of trepidation and creeping envy. His accidental discoveries and meddlesome interventions open up other sides of Justine to both Bill and the viewer, shown in both obvious behavioral shifts and subtler details, such as Suzanne Young’s sly costume design.
When premise doubles as plot, what happens is not nearly as important as how it happens; this is where The Love List excels with sublime comic performances. The meat of this show is in the players’ magnificent reactions, which consistently garner the biggest laughs of the night. Davies and Parker lend their own resigned befuddlement and bug-eyed incredulity, which anchor the unbelievable story developments; for her part, Gloss-Finnell champions a thankless task of switch-flipped character reinvention with a precision that sells the conceit. The tenets of the game are relatively apparent long before the characters catch on, but this trio milks hilarity out of every beat; the show turns a curiosity of a script into an unadulterated success.
The resulting production rises above its inventive, keenly artificial premise and ushers the viewer into a world less concerned with making sense than with making mirth. It’s a challenge for which Lammers and company prove impeccably suited, with teamwork that conjures laughter from what seems like every glance. The concept is a funny one, and the words sufficiently humorous, but thanks to the expert work of this superb ensemble, the indefinable, irresistible spark of this play lives in the spaces between.