Over the years, musical theater has certainly seen its fair share of romantic comedies—from 1970's Company to 2011's First Date—the concept of young people finding love onstage seems almost as ancient and time-honored a ritual as love itself. However, none seem to match the irreverent and brashy style of Level II Theatre's Love is Like Mud. Presented as part of the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival, at intimate downtown venue Drom, Mud sets itself apart as a delightful, fizzy romantic comedy "cocktail"—heavy on the comedy.
At the show's open, we meet lovelorn Jon (Gavin Rohrer), as he, following a recent breakup, laments to his parents about the merits of love. In an attempt to comfort his son, Marshal (Jay Liebowitz) memorably dispenses this piece of wisdom: "It's pliable, dirty. Love isn't like a diamond. It's more like...mud." With this thought in mind, Jon enters once more into the breach, braving the city streets alone in search of that messy thing called love—until, like a clod of dirt in the face, it finds him. In what could only be described as a "Missed Connections" advertisement come to life and set to music, Jon meets Anne (Taylor Kate Manns) after recognizing her from their regular commute home ("Same Spot Again"). He asks her out, and after the success of their first date ("Excellent Choice"), they embark on a relationship together. For a while, all is well and at the height of their time together, even Jon's parents get in on the act, prodding them about taking that "next step" in their relationship ("Grandkids").
Soon afterward, the "honeymoon goggles" come off and their seemingly-blissful phase starts to wane. In a complete turnaround, Anne begins to recount Jon's faults ("The Little Things") and Jon, for his part, soon develops that ever-dreaded roving eye ("Wanderlust"). The two eventually part ways, and at the instruction of their friends, drunken metal-head Angelo and yoga health-nut Maya (also played by Liebowitz and Elise Raynard, respectively), try playing the field ("Revolving Doors"). But as the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and after bumping into one another at a farmer's market, Jon and Anna both realize that they're only stronger together ("Other Girls [The Only One Ever]").
As far as romantic comedies go, Mud doesn't stray too far from the pack, plot-wise. However, its clever coupling of onstage antics—particularly those concerning plush genitalia—and campy song lyrics provide a much-needed offbeat kick. Writer-director Benjamin Folstein's band, Level II, lends much of Mud's comedic flair through its catalog of original songs, which references influences from jazz to 90s pop-rock. Both lyrically and structurally, the songs do not follow the traditional musical theater format, presenting a unique take on the genre that is ultimately much fresher than the show's "dirty" name implies.
It is the aforementioned performances of the actors, however, which certainly add the "oomph" to the music's kick. As the two twenty-somethings at the center of the show, Rohrer and Manns demonstrate great chemistry with one another, both vocally and physically. The latter's solo performance in the middle of the show ("There You Are")—reminiscent of Karessa's solo in Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick... Boom!, another off-Broadway hit— definitely brought the house down. For their part, Liebowitz and Raynard are the perfect foils to the more even-tempered lead duo, providing much of the show's comedic relief.
Love is patient, love is kind; but what they never tell you is that it's also kind of a hot mess. Folstein and Level II Theatre's Love is Like Mud gets down to the nitty-gritty of it all, while also gettin' down to some good, ol' fashioned rock 'n' roll. The music may not always feature pretty little love songs, but they still get to the heart of the matter. That is, after all, what love's about.
Level II Theatre's production of Love is Like Mud ran at the DROM (85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th Street) in Manhattan from August 15-29 at the New York International Fringe Festival. For more information about this production, visit www.loveislikemud.com.