NCSU’s University Theatre opens its 2016-17 season with a play whose concept closely resembles the ArtsCenter‘s 10 by 10 in the Triangle — but there’s a twist! While 10 by 10 takes ten plays that each runs ten minutes, each play by a different playwright, in John Cariani‘s play Love/Sick, he writes nine ten-minute plays all by himself, and all on a standard theme: love can often be a sickness, but we play the game nonetheless. In nine priceless vignettes, the playwright looks at love from nine very different angles, often hilariously pitting one member of a pair against the other. Love doesn’t always win out; sometimes the cold splash of reality brings us to our senses. But ain’t love grand, nonetheless?

Cariani’s 2010 play follows the same format as another of his plays that very recently enjoyed a showing here in Raleigh at Theatre in the Park, Almost, Maine [read Jackson Cooper’s review of that production HERE]. That play also runs a series of vignettes that very much stand alone, but while those looked at love as a possibility, these nine shorts look at love from a very different angle: sometimes love can make us sick. Set in an Urban Otherworld, Cariani’s play brings nine different couples together in a Wal-Mart-like superstore, where all the furnishings have a price tag and all the couples have a problem. How they cope with that problem is the central theme of Love/Sick.

The show is directed by University Theatre’s Mia Self, who enjoyed directing a terrific production of last season’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Self has a whole campus of actors from which to draw, and thus has cast each vignette with a different pair of actors, making a cast of 18. This more readily sets up the superstore situation, convincing us that these nine pairs of lovers really do all exist simultaneously in the same place. Self directs the show on a set designed by Jayme Mellema, whose contemporary sense of style is obvious in this ultra-modern beehive of activity. The show is enhanced by Joshua Reaves‘ lighting and sound design. Each setting exists together on stage, lit by its own particular light, while the contemporary pop music soundtrack nicely moves the play forward while covering the minimal amount of staging necessary to move from one scene to another. Self also knits the shows together with swift little nuances between scenes, such as the Singing Telegram Man of one scene running cross-stage to make his next singing appointment. These little touches also punctuate the notion that all these people live in one big complex.

The production’s program, which lists in order the name and actors for all nine scenes, is particularly helpful. It goes a long way in keeping us straight as to what’s happening. Since it wouldn’t be practical to discuss in detail the events of all nine scenes, let’s look at my favorite scene of the evening, “Lunch & Dinner,” to give the gist of what takes place on stage in Love/Sick.

In “Lunch & Dinner,” Kelly (Mikayla Welker) is just getting home after a long day at work when her husband, Mark (Austin McClure), arrives home just moments later. The pleasantries are automatic and mechanical. “How was your day?” “Fine; hectic.” This goes on for several minutes until Mark remembers that Kelly had a luncheon that afternoon, “How did it go?” “Fine.” “What did you have?” “Sex.” “What?” “Sex; I had sex. It was great.” Kelly is too engrossed in her own brought-home work files to react to Mark’s question any way but truthfully. When he presses her on it, she tries to explain it away. “No, Mark, salmon. I had salmon.” Mark is incensed; she isn’t going to get off that easily. Finally, Kelly admits that, yes, she had sex for lunch. The two argue for several minutes about how each has drawn away from the other, emotionally and physically, until Mark, exasperated, admits that he, too, had lunch last week and had sex. Then Mark changes his tune, “I think we should have dinner. Dinner is a much better meal than lunch. Let’s you and me have dinner. Together.”

Perhaps it was my favorite because it was one of the scenes that turned out positively. Not all of them did. But each of the scenes was tight, well controlled, and excellently acted by the student actors. There was meaning in their portrayals; I believed these actors to be the characters they said they were, which made their interchanges that much more important. Self and company have brought us some finely tuned and tightly knit moments in time that stay with you after they’ve finished. It’s a study in love that’s well worth your time.

Love/Sick continues through Sunday, October 2. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.