New play 'Mad Love' inspired by Dartmouth dating culture

by Katherine Schreiber | 2/2/16 6:00pm

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Dress rehearsal of Mad Love, produced by Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vermont on Tuesday, January 26, 2016. Copyright 2016 Rob Strong
by ROB STRONG and ROB STRONG / The Dartmouth

On Saturday the new play “Mad Love” (2016) premiered at the Barrette Center for the Arts, Northern Stage’s new theater in White River Junction, Vermont. Written by Marisa Smith and directed by Maggie Burrows, the comedy follows the lives and romantic pursuits of four young adults living in New York City.

The comedy follows Sloane Hudson, a young Dartmouth graduate who has decided to take control of her life after a traumatic incident in a college fraternity. Sloane, who has given up on love and marriage, decides that she wants to have a baby through artificial insemination instead of settling down. However, when she asks Brandon, the man she is casually dating, to be her sperm donor, she finds that he has a different attitude towards love and romance.

The plot thickens after a Ukrainian hooker arrives at the apartment that Brandon shares with his brother Doug, who suffered minor brain damage after jumping out the window of his college fraternity. When the brothers discover that they might be in possession of a valuable baseball card, things get even more complicated.

Smith, a playwright who grew up in Hanover and attended Dartmouth for two terms, said that she drew inspiration for the play from the College. Smith said she learned more about the college’s social scene from Dartmouth students interning at the publishing company that she runs with her husband.

“I felt I had a real sense of Dartmouth, but as I talked to my interns I felt that there had been subtle changes in social culture,” Smith said. “I had been unaware of [these changes] over the past twenty years or so.”

These changes included the rise of a culture of meaningless sex and wild partying, Smith said. After talking to her interns, Smith decided to interview women in a Dartmouth sorority about their experiences with Dartmouth’s social scene, a project which eventually inspired “Mad Love.”

There are several other Dartmouth references throughout the play including the character Doug, who was inspired by the “defenestrator,” a D’04, who allegedly jumped out of a window of Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity.

Smith said that she tends to draw her inspiration from a wide range of sources, both conscious and subconscious. Katarina, the Ukrainian hooker, was drawn from a ten-minute play that she had written previously.

“Playwriting is not a linear process, at least for me,” Smith said. “It’s kind of like making a quilt.”

“Mad Love” first came to Northern Stage in Jan. 2014, when it was read at the New Works Now festival at the Briggs Opera House. Over the summer Northern Stage artistic director Carol Dunne contacted director Maggie Burrows, who had directed “The Fox on the Fairway” (2010) at Northern Stage in 2014, about directing “Mad Love.”

Smith worked closely with the director and the cast throughout the production process, Smith said.

“The director-playwright relationship can be kind of fraught sometimes,” Smith said. “But I’ve had a honeymoon, perfect relationship with the director.”

Burrows, the director of “Mad Love,” said that directing a new play was an exciting challenge.

“It’s a slightly different dynamic, where the script isn’t fixed,” she said. “You’re trying to listen to the play and let it whisper to you what it wants to do.”

Actress Alex Trow, who plays Sloane, also said that she enjoyed the challenge of working on a new play.

“When you work on an old play it’s definitely set in stone,” Trow said. “You have to work your way around the obstacles that are there. In this play the obstacles change every day, and you have to adapt to them, which is really fun.”

Although the play is comedic, it also deals with serious issues such as sexual violence and the darker aspects of college party cultures. Smith said that it is challenging to create a comedy that is humorous but still respectful.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Smith said. “You have to be careful of how things land.”

Burrows said that the real issues in the play added to the depth of script, and that she tried to respect the characters and their emotional states while still keeping the play funny.

“It’s a comedy, but it’s not just a fart, slamming-door, lots of jokes comedy,” she said. “It’s about real people, and to me that was really important.”

The play examines hookup culture and the implications of sex without love. After Sloane’s traumatic experience in the basement of a Cornell fraternity, she decides that she wants to keep dating and having sex, but without the burden of emotions or attachment.

“She’s trying to organize her life in a way that doesn’t depend on any other people, and that means shutting off any emotions, any protection or care,” Trow said.

Although Sloane’s case might be extreme, Trow said that playing Sloane has made her realize how much dating and attitudes toward love have changed. Trow compared the romance in the play to the long courtship in the movie “Brooklyn” (2015), in which the characters go on dates and get engaged before having sex.

“We live in a world where that type of romance really doesn’t exist anymore,” Trow said.

Trow said that putting on a play that examines modern dating and love for a Northern Stage audience, generally comprised of older patrons, creates a unique opportunity.

“For people who have seen other versions of [modern dating], it is kind of surprising and heartbreaking,” Trow said. “There are more heartbreaks now because we have more partners now.”

Although there are dark moments in the play, the core of the show is essentially lighthearted. Trow said that the play’s comedic twist on love and heartbreak came as a relief.

“Sometimes the theater is so dark and so sad,” Trow said. “Sometimes it’s nice to have drama and tragedy that ends in a fuzzy place.”

The showing of “Mad Love” marked the first world premiere at the Barrette Center for the Arts.

The play opened on Jan. 27, and runs until Feb. 13.