Review: Purple Rose’s "Smart Love" asks big questions in family drama


Purple Rose's Smart Love

David Bendena is Benjy in Purple Rose's Smart Love. | Photo by Sean Carter.

What is a human being? Is a human a collection of parts, an accumulation of memories? A smile, a dance, a bundle of eccentricities?

These are a few of the questions pondered in Brian Letscher’s new comic drama Smart Love, being given its world premiere at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre.

It’s a tightly focused family drama which is also a brainy sci-fi take on the limits of science and the consequences of going beyond those limits.

In a small Hamtramck bungalow, the widowed Sandy Wachowski is slowly remodeling her home and her life. She’s in a relationship with a good-hearted man and dealing with her conflicted feelings about her late husband, Ron.

Ron was one of those dreamers, a would-be world-beater inventor whose ship never quite came in. When he died of a heart attack it was unsettling for Sandy but devastating for their adult son, Benjamin.

On a stormy, sleepless night, a manic Benjy arrives unexpectedly from his job at MIT and has a shocking surprise for his wary and concerned mother.

This taut, four-character work is performed without an intermission to maintain the emotional tension for the cast and the audience.

Benjy is a brilliant young doctoral candidate at MIT, working on his dissertation and also as a working researcher at an MIT lab. He misses his father, who was his guide and inspiration. But Benjy is also bipolar, flying high and dipping low emotionally, and since his father’s death going deeper into his pain while Sandy has begun to move on.

The young scientist is writing his dissertation on artificial intelligence and he’s brought home the stunning, shattering results of his research and work.

Director Guy Sanville is a master at working his acting ensembles into precision interplay. Here the challenges are keen. The play is both a riveting family drama and also a mordant comedy. It’s four characters each operate on a different key, which is what makes the interplay so interesting. The timing and the person to person interactions are excellently in sync.

Sarab Kamoo plays Sandy as a woman trying to regain her zest for life, happy to move on. Kamoo is sexy one minute, motherly the next, and always intelligent and probing. Kamoo has some fine comic moments, one involving a long keening howl that seems especially appropriate.

Purple Rose's Smart Love

Manic Love. | Photo by Sean Carter.

David Bendena is Benjy. He’s all eyes, darting about, voice a little too loud, hair an oily mop. But Bendena’s performance is anything but one-note. When he pulls back, trying to get himself in sync with others he perfectly captures the sad reality for many who are bipolar. His mile-a-minute dialogue, his wild gestations, his needy pleas are all right on character.

Now for a spoiler alert: The play is about artificial intelligence. And the AI that Benjy has created is his father, seemingly in the flesh and the mind. He is created from official records, old journals, bits of saved memory and a son’s love.

Wayne David Parker is and isn’t Ron Wachowski. He embodies all of the surface charms of Ron. He’s a tap dancer, literally and figuratively. He’s a song and dance man, a flim-flammer. He’s the man Sandy fell in love with. But he is missing some key parts. Parker portrays those missing parts in small, reserved moments that aren’t quite like the real Ron. It’s subtle but effective. As a charmer, Parker is delightfully not subtle but endearing.

Equally effective are the small shared gestures of father and son, like tucking their arms high on theirs waists or certain other gestures and phrases. Benjy carries his father’s mad scientist approach to invention to its highest levels, but at what costs.

Jim Porterfield is solid as Sandy’s new boyfriend, Vic. He’s a great bear of a man with a kind heart and a somewhat shy demeanor. He helps set a comic tone at the beginning.

Gary Ciarkowski’s set is a realistic rendering of a small tract house and all the little reminders of a home under renovation, from paint swaths on the wall, to partially ripped out carpet. He puts you in a real house.

This is a stormy and sometimes magical setting dependent on the precise sound design of Tom Whalen and lighting design of Dana L. White. They play a key role in the play's action.

Letscher’s play is leavened by the crisp wit and charm of the characters (even Benjy at times). He also employs music in as a prod to happy memories. The play takes a melodramatic turn at the end but that seems in keeping with its science fiction side. And the questions raised are important and worth pondering. Can science go too far in trying to play the role of god and what do we miss in that transaction?

This is a play to enjoy but also one to talk about long after it’s over.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Smart Love continues through March 4 at the Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, Chelsea. Ticket prices range from $20.50 to $46, with special discounts for students, seniors, teachers, members of the military and groups. For more information and to make reservations, call (734) 433-78673 or visit: