I have to hand it to San Jose playwright Jeffrey Lo. When you call your play A Kind of Sad Love Story, you give people a pretty good idea what to expect. Or so you might think, anyway. A Kind of Sad Love Story is indeed a sad love story, although it opens with the central couple arguing over how sad it actually is. Andrew thinks it's incredibly sad, and Emily thinks it's not that sad at all. But then, she's the one who left.
Set in San Jose, the play actually starts with the breakup of two college sweethearts after a seven-year relationship. It's an abrupt thing: Andrew asks Emily if she needs help with her bags while they're grocery shopping and she blurts out that their relationship isn't working. For him this is totally out of nowhere, and even she doesn't know exactly why she's breaking up with him, just that things aren't feeling right. The scenes are broken up with interludes where both of them address the audience, telling their amiably competing narratives of when they first met, their first kiss, and other relationship landmarks.
Billed as an "indie romantic comedy", Lo's play is currently being given its world premiere by the Filipino-American performing arts center Bindlestiff Studio, on a particularly sketchy stretch of 6th Street in San Francisco. Interim artistic director Alan S. Quismorio gives it a bare-bones staging with no set. A clever array of contemporary pop breakup songs play during scene changes as part of Alejandro Acosta's sound design.
One curious innovation in this production is that it features two completely different six-actor casts on alternate nights. Curiously, the double casting doesn't appear to be suggested by the subject matter; the play's not about alternate realities or anything like that, except in the "he said, she said" sense. Still, someone seeing cast A is sure to see a substantially different show than a person seeing cast B, just because seeing entirely different performances is certain to alter the affect of the story, maybe even shift sympathies from one character to another.
I caught the first of two previews and saw cast A, even though cast B stars a coworker of mine. Julie Kuwabara is a low-key, mildly pleasant Emily, and Patrick Silvestre makes for an especially mopey but sympathetic Andrew. He was rushing his dialogue a little at that initial performance, making an occasional line hard to hear, but that's the sort of thing that gets ironed out in subsequent performances. There was a bit of stumbling on lines all around, which is understandable in a preview, but sometimes made it difficult to determine if a scene seemed slow because of that or just because, well, that scene's a little slow.
As is often the case, the supporting characters are much more interesting than the protagonists. Emily's workplace at a marketing firm is populated by amusingly outsize characters like a boss who tries way too hard to be chummy (Lee Robin Salazar) and a chilly frenemy-style rival (Roczane Enriquez). Trying to move on with her life, Emily has to contend with a sleazy self-styled ladies' man (pricelessly portrayed by Chuck Lacson) and a relentlessly aggressive corporate headhunter (a singsong-speaking Dana Solimon). Choosing instead to wallow in his misery, Andrew gets moral support from his endearingly boorish and blunt best friend (Lacson) and has hysterical encounters with a maniacally cheery GPS navigator (Enriquez) and an unnervingly shifty auto mechanic (Salazar).
Though much of the entertainment value comes from this menagerie of oddballs, the central breakup story actually does feel credibly true to life. There's the frustrating vagueness of her reasons for leaving, and both of their attempts to move on are complicated by backsliding and comfortable habit. They read through old letters from early in their relationship -- every one ends with some variant of "I love you so much. I always will." Just hearing that over and over makes the heartache palpable. As seen at this early performance, there are still some rough edges to the staging and times when the play seems to lag. A bit where Emily's words echo in Andrew's head doesn't work as well as it should. But the story as a whole is awfully sweet and often funny -- and yes, also very sad, no matter what Emily says.
A Kind of Sad Love Story runs through April 7, 2013 at Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit bindlestiffstudio.org.
All photos by Mark Kitaoka.