“One is—it’s just one. And two is unstable. But three– there’s power in three,” says Wendy (Leigh Williams) at the beginning of Lizzie Vieh’s The Loneliest Number.
In the moment, it’s a relevant assertion. Wendy is in the process of trying to convince her colleague, Kevin (Justin Yorio), to be the “third” in her marriage with her husband, John (Maurice Jones). For the past year, Wendy and John have been polyamorous, taking turns each month choosing a new partner to include in their relationship. It’s not that they don’t love each other, Wendy says. It’s just that a relationship with two people is “really hard” and slightly “claustrophobic.” A relationship with just two people, she claims, wobbles, while a relationship with three is sturdier.
The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, of course, and Wendy and John’s plan for achieving marital bliss quickly crumbles. Three is certainly powerful, but in Vieh’s world, it’s a force more destructive than it is productive. The Loneliest Number, however, is not really a cautionary tale about polyamory, but rather a sprawling and turbulent tale about the complexities of relations between a very particular group of people.
That web gets further tangled as the group adds members. Kevin stays on in the relationship longer than planned. And Arianne (Cassandra Paras), John’s pick for the following month, lingers on, too. What starts as a brief love triangle becomes a long-lasting love…square? Rectangle? Rhombus? Whatever you call it, it’s unwieldy. Add when Vieh adds life-threatening illness, a pregnancy, existential crises, suicide, and emotional betrayal to the mix, it becomes downright unmanageable.
Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on in The Loneliest Number. And its heavy baggage extends to its production, which gets weighed down with a glut of scene changes and prop movements. Frank J. Oliva’s set serves as both a bar and at least three different apartments, and each transition requires so much work—the removal or addition of beer bottles, the assembly or disassembly of a sleeper sofa, etc.— it often needs a stage hand to execute and some canned pop music to keep the audience occupied in the interim. Under Maria Dizzia’s direction, the experience is unduly clunky.
The performances, however, are for the most part pretty effortless. As the socially awkward and hilariously blunt Kevin, Yorio is idiosyncratic without going over the top. Jones, as John, is empathetic and easy-going. And Paras, as the eccentric Arianne, brings a healthy dose of levity with her free-wheeling charm. But while the play has its comic moments, particularly toward the beginning, it ultimately gets sunk in a sort of dramatic quicksand from which even the best performances can’t provide escape.
For years, popular narratives about polyamory—including television shows like Big Love and Sister Wives— have tended to portray its practitioners as fringe members of society. Others have taken a tone of frivolity or absurdity when addressing the practice. But national attitudes and pop culture references about polyamory are changing and The Loneliest Number, in that spirit, doesn’t treat polyamory as a novelty or a joke, which is a point in its favor. But by fixating on polyamory’s capacity to wreak havoc, it proves to be a less than exemplary representation.
The Loneliest Number runs to March 10, 2018. More production info can be found here.