Cockroach Theatre, formerly one of Vegas' top performing troupes, is not having a good season. Its latest problem is John Kolvenbach's intermittently amusing 2008 dramedy "Love Song."
At the story's center is an emotionally and/or mentally challenged young man (Beane, played by Brandon Alan McClenahan) suffering from a profound sense of isolation. His caring businesswoman sister Joan (Jessica Hird) is as hyper as he is subdued. She goes off the deep end whenever her world loses its perfect order. Things take a turn when Beane falls in love with mysterious stranger Molly (Jessica Afton), whom he catches in the act of burglarizing his apartment.
It's difficult to resist a morality fable about the ability of love to transform. But director Erik Amblad doesn't seem to know how to tell this story.
He guts the atmosphere with spooky underscoring (by local Arles Estes) that suggests "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." It's not that kind of show. When Beane first meets Molly, the sound, lights and movement give too strong a hint of where the tale is headed. And Amblad, with one exception, does not guide his actors well.
It's initially a relief to see McClenahan portraying someone other than an out-of-control anger freak. He's a tall, powerful-looking man whose build makes his vulnerabilities all the more endearing. He's especially appealing when he seems to physically change as he grows fonder of Molly. "I'm brand new!" Beane exclaims to his sister, and McClenahan makes you believe it.
But the actor is never fully engaged with the character. He tends to pose.
Hird, as the sister, delivers an annoying performance. She's all one-note screeching. She doesn't seem to understand that when playing an eccentric, "eccentric" is not all you are.
But Hird is effective toward the end when she grows to accept her brother's predicament. Those moments suggest Hird could be just fine if she had a director who could channel her energies.
Glenn Heath, as Joan's laid-back hubby, Harry, provides a pleasant vocal balance. But nearly everything he does seems geared toward an audience. We never get the feeling that we're observing a genuine family.
Afton, as Molly, is the one performer who's able to get under her character's skin. Her quirkiness feels a part of her soul. It's wonderful to read her face; it registers so much. She doesn't need dialogue to express thought.
Her first local performance was in Atlas' "Closer" in September. She was equally compelling then, and "Love Song" hints that she has a multitude of characters in her waiting for the chance to come alive.
But what's unfortunate about Cockroach's season so far is that its mediocrity isn't the result of honorable experiments that understandably don't fully succeed. It's the product of rudimentary mistakes in acting and directing. I kept shaking my head during much of this show wondering, "What's happened? Cockroach used to be so much better than this."
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.