David E. Talbert has titled his published three-play anthology “The People’s Playwright” and the title says a lot. His work, which he writes, directs and produces, flies underneath the radar of the “mainstream” (should that be “white”?) media. His works are targeted specifically to African-American audiences, often play at non-traditional theatrical venues (here, for example, the Wiltern concert hall), and rely on localized word-of-mouth over features in big newspapers or on TV. After a production of his play “Fabric of a Man,” Talbert met film producer Tracey Edmonds, wife of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and the writer suggested the possibility of incorporating some of Babyface’s music into one of his plays. The idea took root, and the result is “Love Makes Things Happen,” a show that takes this Talbert concoction to a new level of potential popularity: “I’ve never been on CNN or ‘Access Hollywood’ before,” Talbert said in a curtain speech following the show. The production has been touring since February, when it launched in Baltimore, and will hit 22 cities before it’s through. It plays at the Wiltern through Sunday, and while it’s not a polished Broadway-style musical, it offers some fabulously sung R&B combined — or rather, accompanied — by truly outstanding comic performances from Joe Torry, Demetress Long and Damon Butler.
Talbert is first and foremost a comic writer, and the greatest craft he displays is the ability to set up a class conflict between two worlds and then spin endless jokes. It’s not surprising that one of his shows served as the basis for UPN sitcom “Good News.” In “Love Makes Things Happen,” the majority of the story takes place in an office building — rendered rather inefficiently in Dewayne Porter’s unit set. The lobby is center stage, where a janitor (Chris Simpson) fills in the scene changes with brief comic interludes about the meaning of love, using the platitudes of his multiple wives as a starting point.
A platform above the elevator stage right serves as the 19th floor office of Sheila (Dawn Robinson of En Vogue and Lucy Pearl), vice president of Internet company Urban Eye, who is devastated when her husband serves her with divorce papers on Christmas Eve. Her fortunes will soon change again when she meets Chauncy (Kevon Edmonds of After 7), a handsome new employee in the fifth floor mailroom, positioned downstage left.
When these two performers launch into one of Babyface’s passionate love songs, the show becomes a concert, and an excellent one. Kevon Edmonds gets more opportunities than Robinson to really shine here, delivering the one new song Babyface created for the show, “I Just Met Heaven,” with his silky smooth ease. The duet “Love Saw It” is another major highlight, as is the solo rendition of “Ready or Not,” which Kevon Edmonds recorded with After 7. Other tunes include “It Hurts Like Hell,” “Sittin’ Up in My Room” and “Soon as I Get Home.”
The music isn’t really fused into the story, and the dialogue scenes between Edmonds and Robinson slog on a bit — they’re singers and not actors. The show never becomes a musical comedy, but remains music and comedy, with a bit too much of the latter and not quite enough of the former.
The comedy, though, can be as crowd-pleasing as the music. Comedian Joe Torry plays the supervisor of the mailroom, and he never fails to get a laugh when he lords his job title — “super,” then pause, “visor” — over the other employees, his ex-g.f. Tina (Cheryl “Coko” Gamble from SWV) and the flamboyant, ever-offended Rodney (Damon Butler), who provides Torry’s character Warren with a target for his constant put-downs and yet is also able to return the jibes with plenty of his own. The jokes do get a bit tired — Talbert milks Warren’s lack of a car too much, for example — and the whole show would work significantly better if each scene were reduced by a third.
In terms of its thematic drive, the class conflict provides the opportunity for some debate, but it’s more an excuse for further joking. Warren insists that Chauncy doesn’t have a chance with Sheila, since she makes a bundle and he works for minimum wage. And Sheila’s confidante Mona (a delightfully caustic Demetress Long) agrees. The class distinction finds its comic climax in the opening scene of the second act, in which the supporting characters meddle with the couple’s first date at a French restaurant. It’s a scene we’ve seen in many a sitcom, but the supporting cast is so good here that they make every beat work once they arrive. That’s true generally of this piece: There’s nothing original or surprising or enlightening about it, but the execution is juicy.
Lots of references are made to African-American culture, but they’re really pop-culture references generally, and there’s no reason this show wouldn’t be accessible to a broader audience base. Part of its appeal, though, is perhaps the fact that it’s by and for a specific community that’s under-served in the commercial theater.