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Theatre in Review: Less Than 50% (59E59)

Hannah Hale, Gianmarco Soresi. Photo: Hunter Canning

Less Than 50% is a play, by Gianmarco Soresi, an actor and comic, about the love affair of Gianmarco Soresi, an actor and comic, and Laura Catalano, an actress and his longtime creative partner. What unfolds in front of us at 59E59 includes, variously, scenes from their past, fictionalized scenes from their past, fictionalized scenes from their past that are allegedly specific to tonight's performance, and scenes that provide alternate endings for their relationship -- which may or may not be over. There are other twists built in, about which I'd better say nothing. Suffice to say that Less Than 50% has a bad case of the Pirandellos.

Indeed, the play's now-we-mean-it-now-we-don't structure has a wearying effect. At first, one hardly knows what to believe; actually, you should believe nothing, because Less Than 50% is a series of strategies built around a relationship that never rings true. The couple's main problem is established early and often: Gianmarco and Laura meet in college, where they are scene partners in acting class. They quickly realize they are soulmates, and Laura is soon ready to take things to the next level, but Gianmarco is skittish: For him, romances come and go, but an acting partner is forever.

This may be a sensible position in real life; in a romantic comedy, it's a synthetic plot roadblock designed to keep two people apart for ninety minutes or so. The script works hard at explaining Gianmarco's ambivalence about marital commitment -- among other things, his father is on his fifth wife -- and Laura's family comes with its share of complications, too. Years pass, they become lovers, move to New York, and struggle to establish careers, but one thing remains constant: Gianmarco wants to keep them in a permanent present tense, a commitment without commitment, which is an arrangement that will become increasingly unsatisfying for Laura. Attending a wedding, she reveals that she considers herself a Christian -- how is it that this never came up before? -- and his remarkably hostile response -- it is the very definition of mansplaining -- causes their affair to unravel. She heads to LA for pilot season and falls for a male nurse. To hold on to her, Gianmarco cooks up the idea of writing a play about them, co-starring them, for the New York International Fringe Festival. The collaboration, which includes plenty of her input, then drags on.

Or perhaps it doesn't. By this point, it's no longer clear whether we're seeing their story or the story about their story. Matters aren't helped as Gianmarco spins out alternate futures, among other things positing a Seinfeld-style sitcom based on their lives. It's around this point that, like Laura, you might despair of ever escaping from this folie a deux.

All of this narrative game-playing might be more engaging if the characters were more believable, but they come across as a pair of mechanical sitcom wisecrackers. Here's a typical exchange:

Gianmarco: I feel...
Laura: Vulnerable.
Gianmarco: No, nauseous.
Laura: Same thing.

During a pregnancy scare, Laura, commenting on Gianmarco's way of shaking the test stick, snaps, "It's not an Etch-a-Sketch." "You mean a Polaroid," he volleys back. There is a remarkably unfunny joke about taking a pedophile on an airplane, to scare away the parents with screaming babies:

Laura: Your Dad was very well behaved at our wedding.
Gianmarco: Did you get a chance to meet his new girlfriend?
Laura: Was she the one in diapers?

This last exchange is from the sitcom version of their lives, but everything in Less Than 50% -- the title refers to the number of first marriages that, according to statistics, survive -- sounds like it could use a laugh track.

When his character isn't acting like a jackass, Soresi is an appealing performer. His opening monologue, introducing himself as the "self-appointed star of tonight's play," packs some genuine laughs, but he never solves the problem of making Gianmarco likable in all his immaturity and self-involvement. And, as illustrated above, some of his attempts at edgy humor are pretty grating. Hannah Hale, a pint-sized barrel of energy and good humor, is immensely appealing as Laura, so much so that one roots for her to escape her lover's grasp. It doesn't help that this long-running off-and-on romance format -- When Harry Met Sally is dutifully name-checked -- has been done to death.

Jen Wineman's direction proves helpful in terms of pacing the action and providing some welcome nuance. The brick-walled comedy-club setting, by Ashleigh Poteat, neatly stands in for various locations, aided by John Erickson's projections of, among other things, twinkle lights, airport schedule boards, Facebook posts, a conversation over Skype, and the credits from the putative "Gianmarco!" sitcom. Emily Auciello's sound design provides plenty of evocative effects, including voiceover wedding reception announcements, airplanes taking off, a computer printer, the sitcom's theme music, and, of all things, Michael Crawford singing "It Only Takes a Moment," from Hello, Dolly!; Driscoll Otto's lighting design is also solid.

Less Than 50% concludes with a twist that is brazen even by the standards of what has come before, but, by this point, it's hard to care. Whether they are together or apart, they'll keep cracking the same TV-style jokes. As for Gianmarco, someone needs to tell him to snap out of it. If he doesn't, Laura should, as they say in show business, go in another direction. -- David Barbour

(10 August 2018)

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