Some people go through life with their heart on their sleeve, while others are much more guarded, desperate to protect their hearts from being broken. In With Love and a Major Organ, a whimsical, poignant play by Julia Lederer currently in its west coast premiere at Boston Court Performing Arts Center, this concept is taken a step further. In this surreal world, humans have the ability to physically remove their own beating hearts and literally gift them to another person. It’s the story of three characters, each of whom has a distinct relationship with their own heart, as they stumble their way through the intricacies of human connection in an increasingly digital world.
Directed beautifully by Jessica Kubzansky, the play opens on Mona (Bonita Friedericy) and her son, George (Daisuke Tsuji). Mona explains to the audience that when George was a child, unbeknownst to him, she had his heart removed and replaced with paper. She did this in hopes of protecting him from the devastation of one day losing his heart, a devastation she knows all too well. As a result, George lives a very colorless, monotonous existence. He jumpstarts his day with coffee, reads his newspaper, rides the subway to work and back, and shares polite meals with his mother, who relishes this type of “consistency” in life.
One day, George encounters a woman (Paige Lindsey White) on the subway who could not be more his opposite. He wears simple black and gray clothing, she wears a loud, purple plaid jacket. Her upbringing was the opposite of his—in one of the play’s most memorable metaphors, she describes her mother’s heart as like a ball of yarn, easily becoming stuck on anything it encountered until it was so unraveled and pulled in so many directions that there was hardly anything left. The subway rider, who is not named until the end of the play, falls hard and fast for George, despite knowing next to nothing about him. She pours her feelings out onto a cassette tape that she sneaks into George’s pocket and is dismayed when he gives her in exchange a tape of his own containing only two words—”I can’t.” Refusing to give up hope but frustrated by the lack of progress in their daily interactions on the subway car they both prefer, she decides it’s time for something drastic. She removes her own beating heart and leaves it for George in the subway, its blood soaking through a manila envelope. George can’t resist the intrigue her heart provides, and once it is in his possession, he quickly becomes caught up in realizing just how much he has unknowingly missed out on in his existence that was, until now, heartless.
As George falls down the rabbit hole of the subway rider’s heart, growing increasingly resentful of his mother as he finally gains perspective on how much she deprived him of, Mona is despondent. She spends her days consulting GoogleShrink, an amusing online therapy service where you upload your thoughts and a machine analyzes them for you. At its suggestion she is looking for a human connection of her own via online speed-dating. Having given her heart away long ago, her body eventually recalibrated and she has felt numb for years. When the subway rider makes her way to Mona’s home, desperate to find both George and her heart, her presence ends up giving Mona a new perspective on life, love, and the importance of relationships.
For a play with such a fantastical premise, the emotions and the characters are incredibly grounded. It’s a simple, human story told in a very stylized way that only makes the message more poignant. The three actors are just fantastic, and each has a satisfying arc to play thanks to smart playwriting. As the subway rider, White is quirky and animated, endearing in how forthcoming she is with her thoughts and feelings, which makes it even sadder to watch when she starts to grow listless and numb after too much time separated from her heart. As George, Tsuji is charming and contemplative, and even when his character makes questionable choices, you cannot help but sympathize. It is Friedericy who is the most affecting of all in arguably the most gut-wrenching and relatable storyline, that of a woman who is trying to open herself up to love again after spending years doing everything possible to protect herself from experiencing the kind of devastation it can bring again. The production is concise and fun, with simple sets consisting of some basic furniture as well as the crucial subway car. One of the most memorable moments is a fantasy dance sequence between George and the subway rider that makes great use of the car’s poles and adds to the dreamlike quality of the entire piece. Projections are also used to bring the world of Mona’s online speed-dating to life, and there are plenty of jabs at our 21st century dependence on technology. “Do you trust Google?” the subway rider asks. “Of course,” Mona responds, dead serious, seemingly offended someone would ever question that.
With Love and a Major Organ strikes a difficult balance between specificity and universality. Lederer has managed to take themes as old as time and find a new, modern spin that exudes charm from start to finish. While we may not go around yanking out our organs and gifting them to virtual strangers on a subway platform, we all know people struggling with the same emotional strengths and weaknesses as these characters—maybe we even are them. The tone and execution evoke the too short-lived television series Pushing Daisies, which also used metaphors and fantastical situations to comment on the most basic tenets of human relationships. It’s funny, moving, astute, and, refreshingly, even has a glimmer of a happy ending. Unless your heart is made of paper—what’s not to love?
With Love and a Major Organ runs at Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena through November 5th. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with a few exceptions including two understudy performances and a $5 ticket performance on Monday, October 23rd. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets are $39 ($20 for students) and can be purchased here.