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Love Song

Anyone learning that a play's final-scene rallying cry is "Death to literalism" may start preparing himself for an evening of high seriousness. The sweet surprise of John Kolvenbach's play "Love Song" is its gentle touch. Instead of hitting auds over the head with earnest metaphysical musings, Kolvenbach works up his ideas of realism and reality, habit and hope, into a quirky romantic comedy.

Beane - Cillian Murphy Joan - Kristen Johnston Harry - Michael McKean Molly - Neve Campbell Waiter - James Scales

Anyone learning that a play’s final-scene rallying cry is “Death to literalism” may start preparing himself for an evening of high seriousness. The sweet surprise of John Kolvenbach’s play “Love Song” is its gentle touch. Instead of hitting auds over the head with earnest metaphysical musings, Kolvenbach works up his ideas of realism and reality, habit and hope, into a quirky romantic comedy. The beautifully cast, pitch-perfect European premiere beautifully delivers both sides of the equation: In the hands of director John Crowley, it’s both romantic and comic.

The production’s seamlessness is exhilarating. Crowley again teams with designer Scott Pask — the latter won a Tony on Crowley’s “The Pillowman” — whose design is distinguished by its fluidity. That’s crucial in a play where the action switches constantly between two contrasting locations, the tawdry, barren studio of disassociated Beane (Cillian Murphy) and the sleekly minimalist home of his sister Joan (Kristen Johnston) and brother-in-law Harry (Michael McKean).

Clumsily staged transitions would kill the atmosphere. By flying and sliding ceilings, walls and furniture on and off the compact New Ambassadors’ stage almost imperceptibly, Pask ensures the play’s fragile mood is sustained.

Cushioned by the solidity of the staging, the slightly fey quality of the writing is held in check. Over 11 brief scenes, auds watch Beane being transformed and transforming those around him when an offbeat woman named Molly (a strikingly gamine Neve Campbell) breaks into his home and steals everything including his heart.

Beane is borderline autistic, with a commensurate inability to see the world as others do. Back in U.K. theater, where he made his name, Murphy again proves his pale-eyed stare is as magnetic onstage as onscreen. His unhurried puzzlement pulls the slight preciousness in the character’s idiot-savant naivete back from the brink.

Played by Campbell as a cross between a drolly shrewd operator and a malevolent pixie given to little bouts of arson, Molly catapults Beane out of his self-obsession. But as far as his fierce sister is concerned, he’s not supposed to be loved up.

In a less balanced production, Johnston’s splendid Joan would walk off with the play. Sizing up everything with championship exasperation and barking disapproval with immaculate comic timing, Johnston comes over as Elaine Stritch with a baseball bat.

Happily, she’s playing opposite the perfect foil in the superbly relaxed McKean. Polar opposites in age, size and demeanor, the two of them are utterly convincing as a married couple from the get-go, so much so that the scene where they play hooky from work is both hilarious — their excuse-laden phone calls to respective workplaces are little comic masterpieces — and endearingly romantic.

That subtle mix of tone is set up by the very specific nature of Kolvenbach’s best writing. Joan gets crosser and crosser not only with Beane’s all-new, wonder-filled ingenuousness but with Harry appearing to fall for it. “That is not a question,” she retorts. “It’s an exercise in shenanigans.” Harry’s response is to remark that he loved how Joan smelled like a cantaloupe. That promptly leads to a wholly unexpected, riotous exchange of sexual reveries.

Unexpectedness is the play’s strength. Whenever Kolvenbach loses confidence and outlines his ideas rather than letting his actors convey them, his over-explanatory tone weakens the drama.

Through no fault of the actors, that’s clearest in the writing of the scenes between Beane and Molly. Their relationship, it slowly transpires, may or may not be a fantasy. Their exchanges are thus suffused by a poetic lyricism that, with insufficient roots in the here and now, hits the law of diminishing returns as it heads for the sentimental, redemptive conclusion.

It is, however, a measure of this spry, A-list production that the ending’s overt sweetness doesn’t diminish the play’s self-evident pleasures.

Love Song

New Ambassadors, London; 408 seats; £42.50 $84 top

Production: LONDON A Sonia Friedman Prods., Robert G. Bartner and Boyett Ostar Prods. presentation of a play in one act by John Kolvenbach. Directed by John Crowley.

Creative: Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Jack Galloway; lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Paul Arditti; production stage manager; Dominic Fraser. Opened, reviewed Dec. 4, 2006. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: Beane - Cillian Murphy Joan - Kristen Johnston Harry - Michael McKean Molly - Neve Campbell Waiter - James Scales

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