You can often get away with cute writing instead of smart writing if the intent is earnest enough. Off-Broadstreet Theater’s production of “I Love You Because,” running now through Saturday, March 23, certainly aims to fit that bill. Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham’s 2006 musical takes the basic plot of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and applies it to a trio of New York 20-somethings. It is a snappy and marketable idea for a musical, and it pretty much works if that fits your needs.
Brothers Austin (Ben Menahem) and Jeff (John Bergeron) are young and looking for love. Friends Marcy (Maria Aromando) and Diana (Nikki Milbrod) are doing the same. A variety of other characters (played by Robert Risch and Sandy Marie Ziolkowski) provide commentary as Austin and Marcy circle one another and Jeff and Diana forge a “friends with benefits” relationship. And going in, that’s pretty much all you need to know.
There are some basic personality quirks here and there, such as Austin’s desire to write the perfect greeting card love poem and Jeff’s general loutishness, but at the end of the day, the play is just a series of songs about people falling in love (and not because the plot demands it or the characters are compatible or assembled in any sort of realistic fashion).
That may all sound like a negative; it really is not. There are some other attempted layers — Austin is a republican! Marcy is a free-spirit liberal! Somehow, they fall in love! — that were old-hat long before the “Mary Tyler Moore” went off the air. In any case this night of theater is about something else: six attractive and likable actors singing their way through a collection of enjoyable songs and everyone going home happy. And “I Love You Because” succeeds admirably on that front.
The show, as a whole, is at its best when it is going for sticky sweet charm. It is fun to watch each of the pairs flirt and bounce off one another, and all six actors have pleasant voices. There are peculiar moments when the evening dips into saucier bits of humor that would be welcome in other shows, but come across as risky at best and inappropriate at worst.
This sentiment is strongest in the second act number “Just Friends,” in which Diana and Jeff cite the virtues of noncommittal romance. It opens with a jolting reference to oral sex that is at cross purposes with the lovely coffee and cake that is Off-Broadstreet’s staple; for the first time in my life as a reviewer, I may have done a spit-take. The number is fun — but boy, does it feel like it came out of a different show.
The entire cast is clearly talented, fresh faced, and enjoyable in their individual performances. Menahem is a capable leading man with a pleasant voice and a stable charm. Bergeron is quickly becoming the king of physical comedy at Off-Broadstreet, and his controlled goofiness is fun to watch. Aromando does not have a lot to work with in an underwritten character, but she is graceful and sweet with an excellent voice, and I look forward to seeing her shine in future productions. Milbrod’s Diana is brassy and cute. Too bad that the two leading ladies are given less to do than the men, which is a strong script issue, but all four leads acquit themselves nicely.
The best performances of the evening come from the actors playing the supporting roles, Ziolkowski and Risch. The flexibility of adding characters allows the two actors to chew a little scenery and wink at the audience in ways the four leads just cannot by virtue of the script; from bartenders to senior citizens to a Chinese delivery boy, the two do the best job of adding the zany, Neil Simon-esque comedy to the show that the script aspires to, but cannot quite hit; both actors add a welcome framework and a bit of spice to an evening that needed a little extra boost of pizzazz and energy.
All in all, “I Love You Because” is sweet and mildly endearing; you will not leave humming any of the songs, but you will probably have crushes on a cast member or two, and, of course, there is always the excellent coffee and dessert to sweeten the evening.
I Love You Because, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, March 23, Friday and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Desserts served an hour before show, $29.50 to $31.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.