If we always adhere to “the rules” of romance, do we risk losing ourselves?
Before Dipika Guha’s play “The Rules” begins, we sit under a rack of light and flowing dresses hanging high overhead like banners of textbook femininity, matched by the shabby chic décor of a quaint love seat and chairs, with everything in a palette of white, off-white, and pink that seems oddly anachronistic. A calm blue-grey light infuses the set against a backdrop scored with horizontal white bars of light that suggest “technology.” These elements of set and lighting underscore the sensory and sensuous imagery of color, light, texture and sound throughout the play.
The play begins with a man and a woman sitting at a tiny table on what could be a first date. Ana (Sarah Moser) is lithe, lovely, waifish, almost innocent. She is bantering coyly with the handsome and intriguing businessman Valmont (Johnny Moreno) about what it means to be “real.”
She’s a girly-girl who is breaking the “rules” of how women should act with men, but not too much. Who is this man Valmont, dressed impeccably in a suit with the cryptic demeanor of a mesmerist (or perhaps just a b.s. artist who’s honed his pitch of seduction)? Who is predator, and who is prey?
Ana’s two closest female friends are Julia (Karen Offerein), an overachieving but “dead inside” psychotherapist, and Mehr (Amy Lizardo), a big hearted but oft-forgotten steadfast worker. Julia and Mehr share Ana’s joy of being in love with Valmont, but they too soon come under his spell. There is a scene where all three women get a simultaneous text message and gaze in ecstatic reverie into their phones, with the backdrop set bars of light streaking to connote the miracle of digital connection. It’s hard to understand how this guy could get away with snaring three women at once.
Valmont is an odd character, a catalyst to reveal each woman’s existential angst and ecstasy. He’s a flawed predator who admits he is addicted . . . “to life.” He calls text messages “letters” to win the women with old school charm. He insists that he loves each woman. His smooth manner calls to mind Christopher Walken’s SNL character, “The Continental,” but played straight.
Of all the characters, Ana has the most predictable arc. When she appears in a bright red jacket, a gash to the palette of pink, we must believe that she is taking control, bending the rules in her favor. Asking the man to dance. Calling the shots. Putting him under her thumb. It is challenging to believe that Valmont would so easily go along with that.
“The Rules” reveals that when you adhere to rules over and over, regardless of what they are, you can easily lose your voice, your skin, your joy and yourself.
The true motivation of each character is vague, making it a challenge to like them. However, all of the actors give outstanding performances. The script has some wonderful gems of imagery: “lipstick iron,” “blood on the violin bow,” coldness of heart and warmth of love. The author seems fond of her own phrasings, but not every character can be equally erudite.
In writing about his book “Till We Have Faces,” based on the myth of Cupid and Psyche, C. S. Lewis says that a human “must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask.” Playwright Guha seems to be striving to present this in “The Rules,” but this particular production seems to be beaten by its own game.
“The Rules” continues at the Creativity Theater, 221 Fourth St, San Francisco through July 16, 2016. For more information, click here .
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“The Rules” by Dipika Guha. Produced by San Francisco Playhouse. Director: Susannah Martin Lighting Designer: Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky. Sound Designer: Matt Stines. Costume Designer: Ashley Holvick. Set Designer: Angrette McCloskey. Props Designer: Devon LaBelle.
Johnny Moreno: Valmont. Ana: Sarah Moser. Julia: Karen Offereins. Mehr: Amy Lizardo.