Review: In ‘Smart Love’ in Venice, the dysfunctional family heads into sci-fi territory

By Philip Brandes
Jan 18, 2019 | 3:30 PM
Review: In ‘Like father, like son: A brilliant scientist (Zachary Grant) shares the thrill of discovery with his inventor father (Michael Mantell). (Jeff Lorch)

“Smart Love” at Pacific Resident Theatre appears destined to be a garden-variety dysfunctional family portrait, but then Brian Letscher’s new comedy unexpectedly pivots into a quirky take on romantic possibilities in a brave new world of technology.

Like so many working-class folks falling short of the American dream, the Wachowski clan at the center of Letscher’s play is coming apart at the seams. Twenty-four years of marriage all but extinguished the passion between Ron (Michael Mantell), a would-be inventor, and Sandy (Melissa Weber Bales), the long-suffering spouse who’d grown fed up with his impractical failures.

Things were better between Ron and his genius son, Benji (Zachary Grant), thanks to their shared love of science — until Ron’s sudden demise sent Benji into a hermetic retreat in his MIT lab.

Seven months later, Sandy has made progress toward moving on, as evidenced in her affectionate post-coital kitchen snack with affable local pharmacist Victor (Scott Conte). Nevertheless, Sandy hasn’t yet found the courage to tell her son about her new relationship, which comes as an unwelcome surprise when the still-traumatized Benji barges in. Trying to navigate the awkward intrusion, Sandy finds herself playing Gertrude to agitated Benji’s digital-age Hamlet.

It turns out that Benji has absconded with game-changing technology he’s developed. Without giving away too much, we’ll say Benji’s creation ultimately forces the characters to re-examine feelings, loyalties and the fundamental nature of being human.

Letscher’s whimsically eclectic script darts through a tangle of concepts, themes and subplots. Some of these threads deliver delightfully elegant comic payoffs. (Nerd alert: Ron and Benji’s shared obsession with all things “Star Wars” culminates in a hilariously self-pitying keyboard homage to the Luke Skywalker theme.)

At times, however, the story trips over the temptation to toss in everything including the kitchen sink. A particularly rambling attempt to weave in the pop psychology of “The Paradox of Choice” doesn’t justify its stage time.

When nefarious academic-militia forces try to retrieve the stolen technology, the menace is so easily dealt with that the stakes never really rise. More to the point, the plot point unnecessarily distracts from more meaningful conflicts. Confronted with a reality altered by technology, the characters onstage are trying to do the right thing as they see it — and therein lies their charm.

Under Elina de Santos’ breezy direction, the fine performances and a strikingly original premise peel away layers of high-tech artifice to find the human heart alive and well.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Smart Love’
Where: Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 24
Tickets: $25-$34
Information: (310) 822-8392 or
Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes.

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