There isn't a great deal of new ground trod in Zoe Kazan's new play, Trudy and Max In Love. Relationships are difficult. Love is complicated. People attempting to find their heart in the world are ill-equipped to do so with another person seeking the same.
But that doesn't mean Kazan's play is generic. The actress/writer who penned the 2012 indie film Ruby Sparks supplies sparking dialogue in her intelligent, if at times a bit too breathy, exploration of urban romance circa 2014. And while the end result isn't exactly revelatory or groundbreaking, it's difficult to walk away from her play without wrestling with one's own issues, history and choices waged upon the eternal battleground of human connection.
On the surface, both Trudy (Aya Cash) and Max (Michael Weston) have it made. She is a 27-ish writer of young-adult fiction. The first novel of her series has been published, she's happily married to a journalist covering the 2012 presidential campaign, and she appears happy and content to be living and working in Brooklyn. Max is a 37-ish writer of more serious fiction. He has won awards, been profiled in national magazines and seems equally content to be living in New York City for the first time in his life.
Trudy and Max In Love at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat., 2 Sun., 2 p.m. Through Jan. 26. $20-$72.
But a play about two successful, well-adjusted people doesn't make for much high-stakes drama, and indeed, it's readily clear that both Trudy and Max have holes in their souls that life in the Big Apple doesn't exactly fill. We see those holes appear, widen, ebb and flow after the two meet in a writer's group (basically a big empty room with a long table and a coffee maker that's intended, apparently, to spark creativity and discipline in people who may grasp that writing is something one does alone in a room, but who can't seem to do it just in any room with only themselves).
During the 100-or-so minutes of the play, we learn a great deal about what Max and Trudy feel about relationships and each other, but we don't know everything about their pasts. And that's one of the strengths of Kazan's play (incidentally, she's the granddaughter of legendary film and theater director Elia Kazan, and that's just cool). As she writes in the play's production notes, Max and Trudy's relationship exists both in the real world of deadlines and commitments and in the private world of two hearts yearning for genuine connection. Yes, the baggage from their past is always present, but, as in any fledgling relationship, there is the constant hope of reinventing oneself within the orbit of another. Everything is fresh and exciting, and even though the audience can see the looming potholes in their romantic road, their connection is so real it's difficult to not root for them to make it, even if there's the occasional temptation of wanting to slap some sense into both.
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That slapping stems from an annoying fly in this dramaturgical soup (along with the annoying hipsterish writing room, usually populated by one or two other characters banging out their blog or magnum opus on equally annoying MacBooks). Max and Trudy don't seem to have to sweat for anything. They're the kind of bright, creative, well-educated, financially secure twenty- and thirtysomethings who absolutely exist in America—none of whom you probably know. Yes, Trudy's husband is always on the road, working. Yes, Max's issues with commitment help make him feel lonely in a city of 8 million. But they really don't have to worry about anything. They have publishing deals. They either own their home or date models. They don't have to worry about how they're going to make rent, how to pay for the dentist, whether to pay the gas or cell phone bill.
So, even though Kazan's treatment of their romance feels genuine and sincere, Max and Trudy, for all their wit and smart talk, are a bit unlikeable. Characters who know themselves too well—both their attributes and their flaws—can be a drain, and the fact two such intelligent characters seem oblivious to the writing on their respective walls undermines the emotional resonance of the play. Both Cash and Weston do the most with their spoiled, mostly oblivious characters, eliciting strong performances. And director Lila Neugebauer's Spartan, streamlined production helps to make for a quick and funny play that, when it rises above its heady brain, truly shines.
There's a peek at the play's powerful potential in the final scene, in which the two characters reconnect after a considerable absence. For the first time, both Max and Trudy seem truly real, not following lusty impulses or idealistic sentiment. Both have grown, albeit in ways neither would have expected at the beginning of their affair. And that provides a silver lining to a play that sounds very smart but ultimately feels a bit hollow. That may be the best one can hope for when a relationship sours, turns cold or just breaks apart in dramatic fashion—or withers away through neglect: that when the emotional roller coaster finally stops and genuine contemplation occurs, you've learned something, anything, about yourself.