There are many unavoidable conventions in the art of storytelling, especially in the boy-meets-girl genre, also known as romantic comedy. Mark Greenfield's frenetic comedy I.E. in Other Words, featuring a 14-member cast from the Flea Theater's Bats troupe, falls snugly into this category. The play takes a lighthearted look at the innocence of puppy love, focusing its attention on the trials and tribulations of a small-town country boy who leaves his childhood sweetheart behind to chase his dreams in the big city. The traditional themes, stock characters, and emotional undercurrents all apply, but once the play opens, it becomes immediately clear that there is nothing conventional about Greenfield's eccentric writing style and wildly imaginative tale.
I.E. in Other Words opens in the country, with sunlight pouring in the house as the Goodman family gathers around to eat the cucumber sandwiches that their niece Jen (Elizabeth Hoyt) has prepared. A young man named Sam (Teddy Bergman) interrupts their lunch, making suggestive overtures toward Jen while Pop Goodman (Malcolm Madera) threatens him with a shaking cane and Ma Goodman (Mary Jane Schwartz) says, "Something upbeat, contrasting my husband, which indicates that I'm rooting for you Sam in your quest to nail my niece."
The characters often communicate like this, snubbing conventional dialogue while giving us a fill-in-the-blank conversational blueprint to work out on our own. For example, rather than simply tell a dirty joke, a character will say, "Insert some innuendo here." Later, when Sam leaves Jen to move to the city, he asks her to "insert a moving monologue about how expanding our horizons will help us."
But this is not to say that the characters do not speak in actual dialogue. There are many precious one-liners and quick-witted exchanges here, especially since the actors are free from having to plod through trivial matters like obligatory exposition, a back story, and obvious references to the passage of time.
Everything about I.E. in Other Words is different and unique, including its outstanding cast. Greenfield's dialogue does not roll off the tongue easily, and yet the Bats were able to execute it error-free at a rapid-fire pace. Because the cast is so large, there is always something going on in every corner of the stage, whether it was characters whispering sinisterly in a corner or popping up unexpectedly from the wings to chime in on an impromptu musical number.
There is also a wonderful use of lights and staging, especially as the plot makes the transition from the light and breezy world of Localtownsville to the dark and dangerous land of City City. In this transition's first jarring image, snarling individuals lunge at the audience, an exaggeration of what many first-time visitors to a city might expect to see upon arrival. A naïve-looking Sam seems to step off the bus into a black hole, where he is trampled by pedestrians, easily conned by criminals, and harassed by a Bad Cop (Jaime Robert Carriollo), who dislikes tourists asking for directions.
But romantic comedy enthusiasts who think they know how this will end need to think again. From the opening moments to the closing monologue, I.E. in Other Words is as unpredictable as the young love it celebrates. Two childhood sweethearts coming of age and moving in separate directions have a slim chance of making their love last. The play, on the other hand, moves effortlessly from beginning to end without ever losing an ounce of charm.
Greenfield and director Kip Fagan have created a much-needed expansion of a familiar genre. Whereas many romantic comedies can feel like Xerox copies of each other, I.E. in Other Words offers a refreshingly new method of storytelling that stands out as a true original.