I try not to let myself become one of those jaded, cynical theater critics. I try to appreciate the hard work that goes into even the blandest of productions. But shows like Romance.com, now at the Richmond Shepard Theater, don't make it easy. Written and directed by Dramatist Guild member Joe Simonelli, the musical explores the pitfalls and perils of online dating, at a time when Web sites like E-harmony, Lavalife, and J-Date have become widespread. Simonelli's piece tries to capture the unique desperation and satisfaction that online dating engenders. We are introduced to Allen and Pam—he's an online dating junkie with the screen name "Commitment Phobic." She's a first-timer who calls herself "Cosmic Girl."
After a little prodding from her friend Linda, "Cosmic Girl" fires off an e-mail to "Commitment Phobic," like an electronic arrow from the Hotmail account of Cupid himself. In fact, freelance journalist Allen is so pleased with his success in online amour that he decides his next article will be titled—sigh—"Romance.com."
The two lovers hit it off and soon enter the normal, non-dial-up realm of relationships. They meet each other's bizarre parents and try to set up their equally zany single friends. Things turn sour when Pam discovers her boyfriend has written an article about what a sham online dating is and how he's used it to manipulate lonely singles like—gasp!—her.
All right, so Simonelli's book isn't King Lear. But it has a certain level of popular relevance, and it's sugary enough to keep audiences from losing interest. There are a couple of moments, mostly involving Allan's gregarious friend Bill, that are pretty funny. There are also a lot of clichés in the dialogue and a lot of attempts at "witty banter" that have the characters refusing to answer very simple questions. But often there isn't a whole lot to say, because the story flows fine, even if it is remarkably uninventive and predictable.
Simonelli's music is pretty basic too. There are a few good ideas for songs, like "Ya Got Deleted" and "Low Down Internet Blues," but the music isn't ever intrinsically connected to the story line or the characters. Again, it's fluffy, sometimes fun, stuff, but even now, two days later, I can't remember a single lyric except "Romance.com," which I recall only because it's also the show's title.
The cast works really hard—too hard in some cases. When Allen and Pam have to make out for a minute, he passionlessly tackles her into a wall, and the resulting scene is very awkward. Also, many lines come out false, as when Mike Sunburg's Bill speaks every other line in a different accent. None of this seems natural; instead, it's as if the director was trying to squeeze in untenable dialogue or stage directions that he just couldn't part with. Despite the effort, it doesn't always work.
Again, I have a great appreciation for the cast members. Their biographies say most of them seem to have traveled with the production from New Jersey, and there is a definite sense of dedication to the work. Jennifer Nelson has a generally very magnetic, expressive presence as Pam. Likewise, Ben Bleefeld, as Allen, is very easy to like and evokes a lot of sympathy at one point when he crunches his head into a laptop. Sundburg and Pam Del Franco are fun as the couple's factory-made crazy friends Bill and Linda. Katie Bass and Steve Fischer play Allan's and Pam's strange, conveniently single parents very well.
A musical like Romance.com is difficult to classify. It wasn't edgy and it wasn't wildly original, but the audience at the performance I attended certainly couldn't get enough of it. Perhaps this one can be written off with "there are different kinds of theater for different people." Perhaps I am jaded after all. Either way, I was logged off.