“People give up a lot in order to simply connect with others.”
Michelle Clunie’s tour-de-force play US: A Progressive Love Story opens like a Hallmark card—crisp black and white scenes of sunlit, linen-smelling, smiling lovers projected onto the set’s bare wall, the images interspersed with the glowing words.
1. A minute portion or point in time: instant,
2. A time of excellence or conspicuousness,
3. Important influence or effect.
Stills of a Man and Woman smiling, holding each other happily in bed, running hand-in-hand through Central Park… moment after joyful moment of pure, shining happiness. The audience is primed, set up for a high sweeping romance or modern fairy tale. And then it all comes crashing down.
The quiet, still moment before the Man is to take the stage to accept a Senatorial nomination is shattered as the Woman storms in to confront the undeniable signs of his infidelity. He can gaslight all he wants—and lord knows he tries—but she has been handed solid proof. While he persists in trying to make her think she’s misinterpreting the reality of the situation, using misdirection and insincere diminutives to try to lull her into a false calm, she struggles to keep her wits about her and fights back, calling him on his BS. “You want us all to think we’re the crazy ones! Yeah, we’re all crazy because YOU MAKE US F***ING CRAZY!” The cutesy way he calls her Booboo is sickeningly sweet and mockingly insincere at the same time, occasionally wielded as if to try to knock her down a peg.
The pair are undeniably passionate, reaching out and melting into one another, even in the heights of their raging argument. Rage turns to grief, pushing to pleading as he makes a bid for her compassion… begging her to stay by his side. “I thought you were my Hillary.” “Hillary doesn’t even want to be anyone’s Hillary.” Promises are made, but promises can—and have been—broken before. But there were better times, too.
And then the play becomes something else. The Man and Woman slip suddenly into a shared fugue, the past made present and immediate. It’s their introduction, and snippets of that first conversation filter through this shared consciousness, memories of better, breathlessly exciting times. They’re discovering each other, letting the other in for the first time. She’s an actress. He’s a politician. Both put on fake faces for a living and tell people things they like to hear. Both make a living out of artifice, so the thrill of intimacy, even when it’s a relationship at a distance as we are told this one is, can be a heady and intoxicating thing. We hear that silly nickname, Booboo, but this time used with only warmth and a wink to one of their naughtier moments together.
That’s how the play evolves, shifting endlessly and with a rapid-fire pace from the present day confrontation with its accusations and petitioning for forgiveness to the early days of discovery, when the relationship was in the full blush of youth. The script is quick and punchy, hopeful without crossing the line into pandering or patronizing. It sounds like a Sorkin script if Sorkin wrote without the self-righteous preachiness or sneaky misogyny.
Both Michelle Clunie and Jeff LeBeau deliver remarkable performances, keeping up the energy and keeping the emotions real throughout—not an easy feat considering the pacing and physical demands made by the script. It’s an absolute marathon of a play, but Clunie and LeBeau, powerhouses both, make it look easy. They are rapturously in love one moment, tearing at each other’s hearts the next, and it never feels false or forced.
The play’s creative team makes excellent use of audiovisual accompaniments, with well-placed photos and short film clips interspersed throughout to either add depth to a scene or to supplement the story with unstageable vignettes. These cues are sometimes crucial to understanding the play’s transitions. The present day is splashed with a banner of stars and stripes projected across the length of the stage. When it’s time to move into the past, the lighting changes to the night sky or a computer monitor slowly filling up with the words of the couple’s exchanged letters. Because the transitions and dialogue are so quick, it’s important that the cues be spot on, which wasn’t exactly the case on the night I was there. But I will assume, because everything else was done so effectively, that those issues have been sorted out.
There are a couple of weaknesses in the play; mentions of his alcoholism here and violent temper there remain abstract. They’re never discussed in any detail and we never see more than a brief series of images illustrating an argument that never looks anything beyond normal. We hear about character flaws, but never actually see them in action or feel their immediate fallout. Also, the early scenes involving the letter-writing phase of the couple’s relationship are lit with their emails’ scrawling text. It’s a nice touch in theory, but the written words follow rather far behind the voiced ones, and I found my attention drifting to watch them instead of keeping it solidly on the actors.
These small matters and a slight hiccup at curtain aside, the play was immensely enjoyable. Michelle Clunie should be proud of this, her first attempt at scriptwriting, as well as her and her costar’s performances. It’s a very moving and thought-provoking show, despite the occasional rough spot. I laughed and got angry, basked in the glow of my own memories and the reminders the show evoked, felt genuinely caught up by the swirling vortex of their complex and very real love story. US is an insightful meditation on life journeys and how we choose to shape them, a reminder that we can’t “pick and choose the parts of life [we] want to look at… the pieces of people you want to love.” It’s all beautiful madness.
Photos by Russ Rowland
US: A progressive Love Story
Through September 29th
410 West 42nd Street