Rebecca Mozo and Nike Doukas in Balzac's dating emporium
Rebecca Mozo and Nike Doukas in Balzac's dating emporium

Love Me Tender, Love Me Harsh

The New York Times reports a new trend for men marrying "up" — women who earn more than their grooms.

The economic realities of the past 30 years have manifested themselves quite obviously in guys being less and less able to offer, by themselves, financial support for their families, while the prevailing theme in the women's movement has shifted from women's place to women's equity in the workplace. How can these trends, and the shifting intersections of money and love, not affect dating?

Since the early 1500s, romantic plays have been written about the cruelty of arranged marriages versus the purity of love. Dating rituals have always been torn by the turbulent and often crashing flows of cash and hormones. Few ideas are more romantic than a young, poor, gifted artist, and a maiden's true feelings for his tenderness. There's nothing less romantic than an elderly, poor artist, gifted or not. He just sort of looks like he's been wasting his time, and should have figured out some better career moves by now. Passion for one's art is just an extravagance if a fella is 70 and unsuccessful — whatever that means. Yet if we're to believe the data from The New York Times, that the times they are a-changing, maybe the old geezer finally stands a chance of wooing a powerful female stockbroker, at least during a market upswing. There's an entire, and ancient, subgenre of sexual fantasy built around that one.

The young, gifted artist in Jeffrey Hatcher's new play — an adaptation of Balzac's serial novel, Cousin Bette, and going by the same title — forms one of the centerpieces of Jeanie Hackett's splendid production for Antaeus Company. This classical rep troupe has been staging readings, workshops and other developmental projects in Los Angeles since, I believe, the early 1500s, and this is their first stab at a first season. The intelligence of the play, the direction and the acting standards bode well. It's also one of at least a trio of productions on local stages grappling head-on with exigencies of love, sex, fidelity and dating.

The young, romantic artist in Cousin Bette is an ingenuous Polish sculptor, Wenceslas Steinbock (Daniel Boss), exiled in 19th-century Paris. (Note, this production is double-cast.) He catches the eye of the title character, played with a wry viciousness that floats just a few millimeters above fury, by Alicia Wollerton. Bette is a middle-aged spinster, a "poor relation" to an extended family whom Bette, also our narrator, introduces person by person (there are 16 actors in this ensemble), accompanied with critical commentary such as "He's an idiot." Were she living today, Bette would be posting such comments on other people's blogs.

Bette has good reason to be so embittered. Because of her failure to secure a spouse and the consequent poverty attached to that failure, she has been relegated to something between a shadow and a nonentity by her own extended family. Her love for poor Steinbock is unqualified. She finds patrons for his work and introduces him into her family, after which he promptly weds the daughter (Rebecca Mozo) of Bette's far more "successful" cousin, Adeline (Laura Wernette). The plot concerns Bette's vengeance upon her family for stealing her love. For her purpose, Bette plays upon the sexual obsession of her cousin's vain and slightly cadaverous husband, Baron Hector Hulot (John Prosky), by enlisting the services of a domestically abused hausfrau (Daria Green). Though Bette's passion for her Pole is unrequited, she lives with a kind of smoldering hope that he'll have a change of heart (good luck); the cause-and-effect quality of the play's emotional machinations has the suspense of a good game of billiards, and vaguely resembles those in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. After three hours of three acts, however, the contrivances start to poke through the skin like the ribs of someone who hasn't been eating enough. The plot, too clever by half, intrudes upon insight, in a production that can't avoid one's respect nonetheless.

Des McAnuff directed a 1988 film adaptation, and the Brits also filmed it back in 1971. Even here, there's a vaguely RSC/Masterpiece Theatre aesthetic that's partly vivacious because it's so well done, and just a little bit dated. Great costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and a simple yet baroque set by Tom Buderwitz.

If Cousin Bette resembles Masterpiece Theatre, then Love Bites, Volume IX is a dead ringer for Love, American Style. The series of seven short one-acts, written and directed by Elephant Theatre Company members (and being staged at that company's Hollywood home on Santa Monica Boulevard), rarely digs deeper than an amusing sitcom, perhaps because the 10- to 15-minute length of each playlet allows the time to expose an intriguing idea, but not to penetrate it. As such, it has the inverse problem of Cousin Bette.

To its credit, the presentation gets steadily better as it rolls along. And if its superficiality derives from its lack of ambition, at least the jokes on various misunderstandings of dating are nicely directed and performed.

Gloria Calderon Kellett's "Most Likely" digs the deepest: a reunion of sorts between a successful shaved-headed, silk-suited businessman (Charles Pacello) — who actually answers his Bluetooth cell with "Go" — playing out a "nerd's revenge" scenario in a coffee shop against his waitress (Maya Parish, veritably seething with intelligence and the indignity of her station in life). It turns out that he remembers her jilting him at the high school prom — she barely recalls it — but now life has turned the tables. With Kellett's brisk dialogue and rare economy, not only do a man and a woman crash into each other, so do the past and the present. Lew Abramson directs.

There's also an appealing reversal of fortune in Steven Korbar's "Hard," directed by Benjamin Caron. Corby Griesenbeck has a pleasingly arrogant-dazed reaction, portraying a straight actor who's chosen to do gay porn for financial reasons. The playlet unfolds backstage before his scene of being gangbanged, and involves his interaction with a female "fluffer" (Kate Huffman) — hired to arouse him before his scene. The nicely cast Huffman portrays the antithesis of porn-meat arousal — a lanky, awkward, squeaky-voiced and suburban-attired damsel from Kansas, who's wandered in from some accounting company and is able to accomplish her task without removing a stitch, or an iota of physical contact.

Over in North Hollywood, Theatre Unleashed presents Andrew Moore's comedy Torrid Affaire, directed by Erin Scott, about a quintet of femmes at a kind of Tupperware party for horny women — the plastic items are sex toys, not coleslaw containers. Through this demonstration, led by Annmarie Mignini — who gives it her all — individuals break into gratuitous soliloquies about romantic and life crises, in the middle of living-room realism. I'm sure these are nice people performing for reasons they believe in, and I wish I had something nice to say about this production, but I don't.

COUSIN BETTE | By JEFFREY HATCHER, adapted from the novel by HONORÉ de BALZAC | Presented by THE ANTAEUS COMPANY at DEAF WEST THEATRE | 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through March 21 | (818) 506-5436

LOVE BITES, VOLUME IX | Presented by ELEPHANT THEATRE COMPANY | 1078 Lilian Way, L.A. | Sun., 7 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through March 14 | (323) 960-4410 |

TORRID AFFAIRE | By ANDREW MOORE | Presented by THEATRE UNLEASHED at the SHERRY THEATRE | 11052 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through March 6 | (818) 849-4039

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