It would take a lot more than water to cool the various passions that seethe throughout “Love’s Fire,” the Acting Co.’s evening of short plays inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets. These tart morsels, written by several of America’s premier playwrights, are no nosegays to the thrill of romantic love; taken as a whole, they’re a tribute more to love’s impossibility than its supremacy. The sonnets themselves are of course darkly tinged, and reveal their tightly coiled beauties only to the steadfast student. Likewise the plays that make up “Love’s Fire,” presented by an eager young cast under Mark Lamos’ fluid direction, are largely thorny and oblique. And if they don’t all merit the attention they demand, the evening as a whole proves an intriguing endeavor.
Eric Bogosian’s opener “Bitter Sauce” is the most straightforward entry, casting a grim tale of betrayal as coarse black comedy. Inspired by Sonnet 118 (“… being full of your ne’er-cloying sweetness,/To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding”), Bogosian presents a bride-to-be revealing to her sweet, mousy fiance on the eve of their wedding that she has been cuckolding him regularly with a bruising biker. “He’s like your opposite,” she explains. That even the most fulfilling love can’t quench the self-esteem-impaired heart’s myriad thirsts is the tale’s unhappy message, although Bogosian closes with a carnal embrace that may be as close as these hapless lovers get to contentment.
Carnal love is dolled up in flamenco dress in Ntozake Shange’s “Hydraulics Phat Like Mean,” a dance piece set to Chico Freeman’s music that, like its title, is heavy with both incomprehensible street slang and pretension. Lisa Tharps is the bewitching dancer playing on her own body the music her entreating admirer, Jason Alan Clarvell, wishes she’d play on him. Some may find themselves wishing they’d just play it somewhere else.
The temperature turns chilly in Marsha Norman’s “140,” a dance of sexual treachery, elliptical in various senses of the word, in which each betrayer is betrayed in turn. “Tell me you love me,” implores the wife to her silent, straying husband, and soon he’s saying the same to his own lover, and meeting the same silence. The piece closes with an ironic play on the word “undo,” as both introduction to foreplay and expression of eternal regret, as well as an orgiastic melee that’s one of director Lamos’ few mistakes.
The first act culminates in Tony Kushner’s contribution, a delirious, scatological encounter between a psychotherapist, her madly besotted patient and their lovers that contains some dizzyingly fine writing. Here two of the show’s standout actors — Erika Rolfsrud as the doctor and Stephen DeRosa as the patient — ably perform Kushner’s verbal gymnastics.
As DeRosa’s achingly neurotic Hendryk fights off his young lover’s aggressive sexual advances — their graphic description amusingly unnerves Hendryk as much as it may audiences — Rolfsrud’s Esther fights her own demons of depression. The bone-deep, inexplicable needs — for a baby, for a lover, for a sense of certainty, for a sexual act — that can drive us to distraction here are vivisected in a frenzied, scattershot farce that leaves us pining as ardently as Shakespeare’s lover for a larger, perhaps more shapely chunk of Kushner’s brilliance.
William Finn’s second-act opener “Painting You” is the rare light-hearted and love-affirming playlet, an artist’s hymn in celebration of his lover and subject that’s like — indeed is — a burst of sweet song amid an evening largely given over to more somber or strident music.
It’s followed by Wendy Wasserstein’s rather tedious anomie-in-the-Hamptons tale, which sounds like a more dour outtake from her screenplay for “The Object of My Affection.” Rolfsrud plays the hostess of a fabulous party going sour, and manages to inject surprising sensitivity into lines like, “I wish everyone hadn’t just seen each other at Alan’s perfect little thing for Henry Kissinger. And furthermore, where the fuck is Diane Sawyer?” Of which there are far too many — indeed Saywer’s name is mentioned more often than during a month’s worth of “PrimeTime Live.”
Last comes John Guare’s “The General of Hot Desire,” a bewitching romp that in its irreverent reenactment of the Bible by a group of sonnet-studying students is an aptly ambitious conclusion to the evening. Lamos’ directorial panache fuses here with Guare’s far-reaching invention — and a delightfully dry DeRosa as a kvetching God — in a retelling of Christian history that blooms with exquisitely phrased insights into the impulses behind art: “These fragile inventions of man’s are man’s only defense against the silence of God.”
Sonnet, symphony, dance and drama, Guare’s enchanting play reminds, are all vehicles we concoct to get back to Eden. Fired by the meeting of love and knowledge, they’re the only substitute man has for an absent God’s mercy, which all the struggling souls arrayed in the plays of “Love’s Fire” could use a sweet drink of.