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The perfect 10

"The Love List" surpasses TV sitcoms

"The Love List" is better than TV.

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I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Olympia theater companies aren't competing with each other (even last weekend, when three different shows opened downtown), they're competing with television. If you're a producer who plans to charge money for tickets to a musical, then it needs to be better than Glee - a task which, let's face it, hasn't been difficult for over a year. But if you stage a sitcom, by golly, you've bitten off a challenging task indeed, because your competition is Modern Family, Parks and Rec, and Up All Night. Situation comedy has always been hit or miss, but cable subscribers have plenty of yuk-worthy material to enjoy on their DVRs. If your production can't be as polished and funny as what's on the boob tube, then you'll find yourself playing to barren houses.

The Love List at Harlequin has been playing to standing ovations, and that's because it's better than TV.

See, without well-crafted jokes to deliver, even gifted actors can flail hysterically. The three talents working for Love List director Scot Whitney, on the other hand, can breathe and interplay as the material goes about selling itself. Credit the surprisingly rich script by Norm Foster, Canada's recent answer to Neil Simon, who bends an all-too-familiar setup into more than a series of punch lines.

"Be careful what you wish for!" the tag line warns ungrammatically, which motivates a thought-provoking lesson. If you're happily married, is your spouse the person you'd have ordered from a catalog, or has he or she surprised you with assets you never knew you needed? And isn't it funny how ostensibly positive traits - a knack for spelling, say - can grind on your nerves before long? Meanwhile, that braying laugh or back hair turns out to be less of a buzzkill than feared. Love is fuzzy math, not algebra, and it takes more than an eHarmony questionnaire to make it add up.

The situation vis-à-vis this sitcom can be explained in a paragraph. Leon (Ryan Holmberg) plans to buy his nebbishy statistician friend Bill (Gerald Browning), who's turning 50, the services of a Romany matchmaker. Gypsies, of course, have magical powers, as you know. (It's hackneyed and borderline racist, but watch as we all shrug.) So Bill is directed to choose the 10 characteristics he values most in a potential significant other. Charmingly, just one of his selections would feel at home in a mid-'80s sex comedy, so instead of Kelly LeBrock, he gets the devoted Justine (Alison Monda). Complications ensue.

In arts criticism, we refer to a performer's "wheelhouse," meaning his or her area of greatest expertise. I never saw Gerald Browning on stage before last Saturday, so I can't say whether he specializes in dweebs. What I can say is, he could. Monda, of course, has been typecast as a sexpot who can sing, largely because she's sexy and can. As for Holmberg, while he's broken out of college and community theater in record time, who knew he could play a character 20-plus years older than himself so convincingly?

Keith Jewell's exemplary sound design reminds us time and again that the Beatles were a quartet of brothers riven by love. Bill's Love List romance threatens to disintegrate his friendship with Leon. By the end of Act II, it could rearrange his living room. "I don't believe in Beatles," John Lennon sang, "I just believe in me - Yoko and me, and that's reality."

Was it?

The Love List

Through Oct. 29, 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun., $31
Harlequin Productions, 202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia

LINK: Special Ladies Night Oct. 7

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