Inside ’Love Sucks’ :: hook-ups, bad manners and modern romance

by Jim Halterman

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday March 17, 2011

"All those scenes are dramatic and if you twist it just a little bit it could be a serious, dark, dark, journey," says playwright/director Rob Mersola of his new play Love Sucks: A Not So Romantic Comedy of Bad Manners, currently playing at the Coast Playhouse in the heart of West Hollywood. Having just recently opened, rave reviews have come in from the LA Weekly and right here at EDGE, so EDGE's Jim Halterman sat down with Mersola and members of the cast to talk about making a play with a dark underbelly incredibly funny and, with good notices thus far, what's the next step for the production.

In Love Sucks, a group of six Manhattanites go through a variety of dating ups and downs with a myriad of elements complicating things like large penises, gypsy seductions, infidelity (discovered by, of all things, semen on a clothing accessory), murky sexuality and bathroom sex. However, the cast doesn't go directly for the laughs but hope the result still ends up leading to laughter. comedy.

"We're playing it like a really serious drama," said actress Jeni Verdon, who plays a character called only Woman. "The reactions are so huge and to find the real circumstance under which that could happen and then on top of that make it funny... it's so fun to make it as big as possible but as full and big as possible."

Written in frustration

Perhaps what attributed to the darker side of the comedy is that Mersola wrote the play out of frustration over what he was seeing in the theater community in New York. "It was because Josh (Bitton, who plays gay character Calvin in the play) and I had been doing every piece of shit play in New York with every crappy actor and I was just completely sick of it."

So, like any good writer, he decided to take action. "I sat down and said 'What do I want to see? What would be fun to act and what would be fun for an audience to see?' and so I wrote that first scene."

Casting the play was probably one of the easier tasks since everyone in the play was already connected to each other in some way or another. Verdon and Mersola were roommates in New York City. Bitton and Daniel Ponickly (who plays Charlie) knew each other as kids. Sadie Alexandru (Josie) and Anil Kumar (Guiseppi) went to the same college as Bitton and Mersola. The play also features Michael Alperin as Harlan, Josie's current date.

That established camaraderie translates clearly on the stage in Love Sucks. Mersola, however, did not necessarily write every role for each actor that ended up being cast. "I definitely had Jeni in mind and I didn't know Danny that well but I started thinking Danny was a good fit for the role of Charlie. I was thinking of myself in terms of the Calvin character. The other characters, no."

A gay play?

Having a close-knit cast that already is familiar with each other also leaves the door open for minor tweaks and changes that might naturally unfold during the production. "There's always something not completely new but just in the little bits of business of it and the little ways that people interact it's very new all the time," said Verdon, who is the granddaughter of dancer/actress Gwen Verdon. "People are doing a little bit of fresh or they find something funny and new to do or a new moment that sparks and tumbles down a whole new thing."

Thankfully, Mersola knew to leave himself open to such changes especially when he was auditioning actors for the play. For example, the role of Guisseppi was originally a 50-year old Italian, which is not who actor Anil Kumar is at all. "The first time I saw [Anil] read the role I was like 'Oh, I get the role! I get what that character is.' He defined the role and it was something that I did not intend at all."

Mersola also said that even though he wrote the play and has seen it performed so many times, sometimes he manages to catch things he hadn't noticed before, like a recent experience when he sat in the audience during a performance. "I sat and watched Jeni just take Danny in through the entire scene, which I'd never really done, and it was just hysterical and things I'd never seen and there she is completely acting and getting every single moment that she's given and it was like an entirely new scene to me! I've never watched this side of the scene!"

Despite the fact that some of the play's characters may step from the hetero-side of things to the homo-side of things, is calling Love Sucks a gay play incorrect? "Yes," answers Mersola. "I do think that's wrong... even though there are a lot of blow jobs in it." Verdon agreed and added, "I think it's really about everybody. The experiences that people share. It makes you see how similar people's experiences are."

Movie, TV or off-Broadway?

Bitton likened the character variety in the play to living in a big metropolis like New York City, where he grew up. "It feels very Lower East Side to me with the dysfunction and fun and craziness and living in the city like that where you can go out and at any moment any experience could block your way. It doesn't exist only in the Lower East Side but that's an area that I know. It fits there just like it fits Silverlake and right here in West Hollywood."

Speaking of Los Angeles, the cast and Mersola are well aware that theater is perceived differently on the West Coast than in New York City. "My experience [in New York] is that actors, regardless of what level they're at, if there's a play available they want to go do it," explained Bitton. "Here [in Los Angeles], there are actors who hit a certain level whose agents and reps say 'No theater. We need you available to go do whatever.'"

That said, Los Angeles doesn't always live up to its not-so-great reputation of having quality theater. In fact, Ponickly thinks that entire notion about the City of Angels is not exactly 21st century thinking. "This whole theater versus TV and film bullshit is the old way of thinking, I think."

With a comedy play that hits all the right notes, the obvious question is what comes next in terms of branching out to other mediums? Are there aspirations to turn this into a television series or write the film version of it? Despite having the play in a town where television and film are so prominent, Mersola said, "Those things can come down the line but I think I have my eye on off-Broadway."

While Mersola and his cast soaks up the positive reviews and figures out that next step, Love Sucks will be performing the comedy at the Coast Playhouse and the cast will wait to see who might show up in the audience. This being Los Angeles, it was no surprise when this critic saw the play and comedy legend Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond) sat in the audience. That kind of surreal presence is not lost on the cast. "I felt honored to make Doris Roberts laugh because she's made me laugh so much," gushed Verdon with a smile.

For more information on Love Sucks, go to www.LoveSucksPlay.com.

Jim Halterman lives in Los Angeles and also covers the TV/Film/Theater scene for www.FutonCritic.com, AfterElton, Vulture, CBS Watch magazine and, of course, www.jimhalterman.com. He is also a regular Tweeter and has a group site on Facebook.