Mike Bartlett is full of surprises. The 36-year-old British playwright already has written excellent plays about love and sexual confusion (Cock) and Prince Charles ascending the throne (King Charles III). Love, Love, Love takes a jaundiced look at the Baby Boomers, as depicted by the gleefully self-absorbed Kenneth and Sandra, played with winning aplomb by Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan.
Even if you disagree with Bartlett’s indictment of this much heralded and romanticized generation (I do), Love, Love, Love’s deeply flawed characters are hard to shake off. And Bartlett, who’s not exactly gentle to the subsequent generation either, conveys great depth in a show that runs just over two hours with two intermissions. The Roundabout Theatre’s Off-Broadway production, directed by Michael Mayer, is part political diatribe, family drama and even satire, yet, despite a sagging middle act, comes together for a firm finish.
Kenneth and Sandra are blissfully oblivious to the needs of those around them and the havoc they wreak. Their faults are easier to forgive when they meet in the first act – through Kenneth’s brother Henry (Alex Hurt) – as Oxford students on summer recess in 1967 when the Beatles were debuting “All You Need Is Love.” But their self-interest isn’t so easy to stomach when we see them in the second act, in their 40s in 1990, as parents to teenagers Jamie and Rose (Ben Rosenfield and Zoe Kazan), with whom they have boundary issues, and in the third when they’re in their 60s in 2011.
Through Rose, Bartlett takes sharp aim at Kenneth’s and Sandra’s hypocritical natures in act three. The two, now divorced, are well-off and enjoying comfortable retirement, while Jamie and Rose have done little with their lives. Jamie lives with his father, and the young man’s most meaningful relationship is with his smartphone. Rose hasn’t been able to find steady work as a violinist and, at 37, needs a roommate and temp jobs to make ends meet.
“I want to you to buy me a house,” she tells, rather than asks, her parents, firing off a storm of invectives. “You didn’t change the world, you bought it. Privatized it. What did you stand for? Peace? Love? Nothing except being able to do whatever the fuck you wanted.”
It’s enough to make even the unsympathetic Sandra question her assumptions. “Perhaps we just got lucky,” she wonders to Kenneth. Though their parental ineptitude is exasperating, their Gen X offspring are also hard to endure, especially Rose’s refusal to accept responsibility for the choices she’s made.
Maybe that’s because Armitage, making his New York theater debut, and Ryan are so dynamic as the insouciant parents. You wouldn’t want to be raised by Kenneth and Sandra, but they’re compelling company for an evening. In many ways, Love, Love, Love is as much about the continuing generational battles between parents and children as it is about one specific family’s conflicts. Regardless of what you think about the 60s, Bartlett’s play resonates today.