There’s no doubt that David Schulner has playwriting skills and can conjure laughter, or that his new two-character romantic comedy “An Infinite Ache” has its fleeting charms. Trouble is, it also evokes a sense of deja vu as it covers ground already so well (and sometimes better) traveled, notably in Jan de Hartog’s 1951 marital comedy “The Fourposter” and, even more briskly and briefly, in Ira Gershwin’s lyrics for “The Saga of Jenny” in the 1941 Kurt Weill musical “Lady in the Dark.” Another problem is that Schulner’s Hope and Charles aren’t particularly interesting people, with the latter blandly two-dimensional.
“An Infinite Ache” is set in a bedroom dominated by a double bed, as are the 35 years covered by “The Fourposter.” Schulner’s fast-forward portrait of a marriage unfolds over about 50 years, from Charles and Hope’s first blind date in their 20s to Hope’s death. Or does it? The play’s archly irritating epilogue suggests that what we’ve seen has, in fact, been Charles’ dream of what marriage to Hope might be like as she takes a nap for the duration of the play because she has a headache from the wine they had at their first-date dinner. The possibility exists that they might not get married at all or that, even if they do, their life together could be entirely different.
Hope is the better role, that of an admittedly difficult Chinese-Filipino-American Californian would-be actress, and Angel Desai brings an attractive presence to it, though she sometimes lets her vocal volume drop too low. As the Jewish Charles, a newcomer to Los Angeles, Peter A. Smith takes his role too much at face value. He’s never less than likeable, but he tends to be forgettable.
As the play appears to whip through the years, both actors have to be emotional quick-change artists. And, indeed, they are technically able to encompass the abrupt switches involved in loving, fighting and grieving as Hope and Charles live together, marry, lose their first child and undergo counseling in order to come to terms with their loss, cope with their second child and her growing pains, etc., all in 83 minutes (though it seems longer). At one point, a pile of clothes in Hope’s arms destined for the dry cleaners metamorphoses into their first baby, Buddy. Charles asks if they could have a dog, they get a dog, and they get rid of the dog, all in the space of less than a minute.
But somehow we never really get to know this couple or what makes them tick, and it becomes clear that for “An Infinite Ache” (the ache of love) to fully work, it would need two big stars such as Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the Broadway “The Fourposter” or Mary Martin and Robert Preston in “I Do! I Do!,” Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1966 musical of the Hartog play. Desai and Smith just don’t have the stature or role-enhancing personalities needed.
LWT acting artistic director Greg Leaming has helped them negotiate the play’s physical demands with panache. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has cleverly supplied a basic bedroom setting that is constantly re-dressed and refurnished, mostly by the actors themselves. In something of a circus trick, endless bits and pieces come out of a suitcase, including potted plants, lamps and rugs. And the bedroom doors constantly open onto different rooms behind them — a closet becomes a bathroom, for instance — as the play moves from Charles’ one-room L.A. apartment to a larger apartment and so on. Kellogg gives her realistic set a surrealist tweak by painting a blue sky with clouds on either side of it.
Following its Dec. 12-Jan. 20 LWT run, “An Infinite Ache” is scheduled to transfer to the Stamford (Conn.) Center for the Arts’ Rich Forum Jan. 25-31. LWT’s intimate 199-seat Stage II is the right size for this production, so it seems likely to fare less well in the SCA’s 750-seat Rich. Meanwhile, playwright Schulner might consider giving his characters more substance, particularly Charles.