Stage Left: I and You taps illness rom-com trend

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Of late, romantic stories about sick young people have emerged as a distinct sub-genre. For instance, there was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012), a young adult novel (subsequently a film) about a girl with cancer who falls for a boy suffering from the same.

And there’s the 2019 movie Five Feet Apart, about a young woman with cystic fibrosis who becomes romantically involved with an ailing young man.

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Langham Court Theatre has just opened Lauren Gunderson’s 2014 play I and You. In this two-actor drama, Caroline, a high-school student with a serious liver ailment, receives a surprise visit from a classmate. Like a cactus flower in an inhospitable desert, young love ultimately blooms.

Caroline — feisty and smart — has never before met Anthony, a decent young man with a heart as big as Kansas. At the beginning, in true rom-com style, the pair spar and bicker furiously before bonding like Super Glue.

I and You was a hit, gleaning critical acclaim and enjoying well over 20 productions since it debuted. Gunderson has, meanwhile, emerged as one of America’s most produced playwrights.

Some will find I and You a touch jejune and sentimental in the manner of after-school TV specials.

A melodramatic surprise ending will leave you either thrilled or groaning. There’s a distinctly YA-lit vibe throughout this 90-minute play (I kept thinking of the classic line, “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders).

An audience noticeably younger than Langham Court’s usual crowd responded enthusiastically to Thursday’s opening performance. Certainly this production of I and You, capably directed by John Han, has its share of strengths.

The show benefits from the talents of two promising actors. Jesse Deutscher (Caroline) and Justin Francis Lee (Anthony) offered well-rehearsed, energetic performances.

The detailed set is terrific — Caroline’s bedroom is stuffed with groovy teen detritus: vintage Elvis poster, lava lamp, cat-scratching post, retro-lamps and so on. Wide-screen clips of computer games and music videos work well; all light, video and sound cues were handled adroitly.

The play commences with Anthony, wearing a backward baseball cap, dropping in unannounced. He spouts a cryptic line that turns out to be a quote from Walt Whitman’s famous poem Song of Myself.

Caroline — a tiny girl in a too-big sweatshirt — is bewildered and frightened. Anthony hastily explains he’s volunteered to be her partner for a school assignment. Nonetheless Caroline, who is homebound because of her liver ailment, lashes out at the intruder for 20 or 30 minutes.

This introductory section is heavily salted with sitcom teen speak. “What is wrong with you, super hater?” says Anthony. “Walt Whitman can bite me,” says Caroline.

Eventually she does agree to a partnership — they’ll create a Whitman-inspired poster together. “How do you feel about glitter?” Caroline asks. “Philosophically I’m agnostic on glitter,” says Anthony.

It’s doubtful anyone outside a Neil Simon (or Lauren Gunderson) play actually speaks like this. Happily, about halfway through, the quip-fest subsides and we get to know the characters a little more.

Bon mots on the benefits of Chunky Monkey ice cream and Caroline’s toy turtle give way to heavier subjects. Anthony turns out to be a John Coltrane devotee; she digs Jerry Lee Lewis.

Caroline is a gifted photographer with a Whitman-esque love for minutia; he has just witnessed a terrible tragedy on the basketball court.

Deutscher, as Caroline, sometimes displayed flashes of nuance and a knack for subtle facial expression. And the more the playwright eased up on the shallow-end-of-the-pool banter, the more Lee was able to dig into the character of Anthony.

Gunderson intends to say something brave and refreshing about the fleeting, transcendent beauty of life — never a bad thing. And if I and You sends you back to that tattered copy of Walt Whitman poems on your bookshelf, so much the better.

The show continues at Langham Court to March 14.

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