When I settled into my seat at the Laura Pels Theatre nearly two weeks ago for Love, Love, Love, I had little idea what I was in for, aside from the implication of the title (of course, the opening chant of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”) that somehow it related to amatory issues stemming from the 1960s. I had not seen the best-known stateside work by its playwright, Mike Bartlett, King Charles III.
Born in 1980, Bartlett belongs to Generation Y, or the “Millennial,” generation, the age cohort that represents the offspring of the Baby Boomers. He has taken the full measure of the Boomers, in all their narcissism, need for immediate gratification, and disregard for posterity in this comedy-drama, which closed a week ago. He focuses in each act on three emblematic moments: June 25, 1967, when, for the first time, a worldwide audience watched a live TV broadcast (with a finale of the Beatles singing "All You Need Is Love"); March 31, 1990, when “Poll Tax Riots” at London's Trafalgar Square erupted against Thatcherite policies; and 2011, three years after the Global Financial Recession had left millennials with diminished prospects.
The couple at the play’s center, Sandra and Kenneth, are too restless to be contained by their immediate physical environments (the cramped London apartment of Henry, Kenneth’s straitlaced brother; a more comfortable suburban home in Reading; and a similarly well-appointed bachelor’s pad), let alone norms of behavior.
High even before she steps into the apartment of boyfriend Henry in Act I, Sandra shares with Kenneth a sense of promise and privilege arising from their shared Oxford background (something not open to Henry, who’s been on his own and forced to pay his own way since his late teens), the same age (19—four years younger than the more mature Henry) and the sense that the future belongs to their generation (“Young people, our age, we’re the moment,” she says). It’s not long before this mini-skirted dynamo is practically coming on to Kenneth right in front of poor stick-in-the-mud Henry.
Through the first two-thirds of the play, Sandra directs the arc of the relationship—using pot and a snug, too-close-for-comfort dance to override Kenneth’s initial qualms about taking up with her, then two decades later, broaching the subject of divorce when he is clearly not crazy about the idea.
Their children, glimpsed as teens in the crucial second act, are the collateral damage wreaked by this dipsomaniacal, self-absorbed couple. The younger child, son Jamie (played by Ben Rosenfield), emotionally shuts down and is lucky to survive at all in a dead-end job. Daughter Rose, initially merely resentful as an adolescent, returns as an adult to deliver a stinging indictment of her parents and their generation.
More than a few millennials in the audience, I suspect, must have nodded in agreement with Rose’s (or, more precisely, Bartlett’s) diatribe. Forget about the ballyhooed digital technology of today: Baby boomers were the original “disrupters.” We give ourselves credit for ending the Vietnam War and for creating or supporting great music, but as this play shows, much of this stance is posturing. On this side of the Atlantic, we elected one of our own as President; meanwhile, Bartlett’s side of the Atlantic, egged on by scattered reports of foreign taking away natives’ jobs, voted for Brexit.
To be sure, many Baby Boomers would argue with the notion that they are sell-outs. (What about the environmental and civil-rights movements?) But, if Bartlett’s dialogue pushed the idea of heedless generational change quite hard at points, he is well-served here by Michael Mayer, who has directed two Tony-winning plays for the Roundabout (A View From the Bridge and Side Man). When this generational conflict (with undertones of class warfare—Rose, unlike her parents, is stuck in a tiny flat) becomes too one-sided, Mayer’s stress on the sheer physicality of this performance sweeps the audience up with belly laughs: not just, say, the Mondrian-inspired miniskirt of the teen Sandra, but also middle-aged Sandra’s hilarious, tipsy walk with her daughter’s birthday cake.
As Sandra, Amy Ryan (an Oscar nominee for Gone, Baby, Gone) led the quintet of actors here, displaying a decided flair for comedy. Richard Armitage is nearly as good as the passive Kenneth, allowing the audience to grasp at the passage of time in the course of the play through the progressively slowing walk of his character. Alex Hurt captured all the sputtering, repressed fury of Henry, and Rosenfield made for a deeply affecting Jamie.
I was disappointed that, at the matinee performance I attended, Zoe Kazan was unable to perform, as I had seen her several years ago on Broadway in the production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull that starred Kristin Scott-Thomas. However, understudy Kathleen Littlefield filled in admirably as Rose, taking the daughter from an adolescent annoyed with her parents’ lack of attention to her needs to a woman on the verge of middle age, venting her spleen in wave upon wave of frustration.