Actors Comedy Lab and Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St., Raleigh
Through Oct. 18


Sonorous Road Productions
209 Oberlin Road, Raleigh
Through Oct. 18


Deep Dish Theater Company
201 S. Estes Drive, Chapel Hill
Through Nov. 14

My friend had just proposed that we get married. Then she broke the silence with a small demand: “You do have to go back to college, though.” Contemplating her future doctoral studies, she concluded that being yoked to a humble bachelor of arts would cause her to lose face. Unwise as I was, I didn’t realize she was telling me clearly just how conditional her affections were.

So I understand how some confusion is possible: Some things look like love but are not, while others, which seem to bear no resemblance to it, are. For confirmation, consult three current productions whose couples could all write a truly bad romance.

In the oldest, Actors Comedy Lab and Raleigh Little Theatre’s crisp revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 farce, THE RIVALS, actor Sarah Beth Short’s sparkling Lydia is so caught up in reading bodice-rippers (seen in John Maruca’s lurid but droll scene-change projections) that she insists her suitors be hunky, enlisted and comparatively impoverished. These requirements force Jonathan King’s toothy Captain Jack to take on the alias of a lowly ensign to woo her. Just as compelling, under Rod Rich’s direction, is Gus Allen’s Faulkland, whose insecure suspicions repeatedly prompt him to talk his way out of the affections of Lydia’s friend, the fair Julia (a nimble Noelle Barnard Azarelo).

In the matinee we saw, the ensemble had trouble warming up, with inconsistent accents and speed sacrificing intelligibility early on. But the cast came into its own on Thomas Mauney’s candy-colored set, in Jenny Mitchell’s delicious-to-ludicrous costumes, with gratifying support from Morrisa Nagel as the imperious Mrs. Malaprop and Tony Hefner as the ever-genteel duelist Lucius O’Trigger. As the actors gained traction, Sheridan’s social satire mocked the follies of the one percent, some two centuries back.

Romantic fantasies of a darker sort figure in Amy Herzog’s unsettling BELLEVILLE, the inaugural production from Raleigh’s new Sonorous Road Productions. On our first visit to its Oberlin Road digs, a tasteful lobby and a stylish, generous black box theater formed the centerpiece of a remodeled ’50s-era brick-and-glass office building that previously hosted social agencies, a trampoline center and a church. (Indeed, that space may be a bit too generous at present; Herzog’s psychological drama would clearly benefit from a space more claustrophobic than Greg Griffin’s open set.)

The opening contretemps in Herzog’s script, between American expatriates Abby (company founder Michelle Murray Wells) and her husband, Zack (David Friedlander), is amusing enough. The awkward exchange occurs after she finds him indulging in some afternoon porn. Gradually, we discover other troubles in this young marriage.

The two have moved to Paris for Zack’s first job after med school, an AIDS research position with Doctors Without Borders. After about six months, both are increasingly on edge. Abby, off her anti-anxiety meds, is slowly withdrawing from Parisian social life. When Zack says he just wants her to be happy, she finally snaps: “I’m so tired of this fucking pressure to be happy. I am not happy, OK, that’s just not my, like, mode of being, so if that’s what you’re trying to accomplish, stop.”

Relationships require sacrifice. But here, the question of who has sacrificed whatand the wisdom of those sacrificesrepeatedly arises. Under Zachary Roberts’ direction, Wells ably inhabits Abby, while Friedlander (whom local audiences last saw in the PlayMakers Rep two-hander Stones in His Pockets) compels as a man whose life is slowly coming unraveled. But the script’s Hitchcockian dynamics of manipulation and deceit aren’t fully explored, despite strong support from David-Alexander Coley’s amiable Alioune and Tara-Whitney Rison’s stoic Amina, the building’s landlords.

In O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” a couple’s miscalculations of each other’s needs lead to laughter and reconciliation. In Belleville, different misreadings and revelations show the frightening extremes to which spouses will go to protect something that may or may not exist.

From the start of John Patrick Shanley’s dark romantic comedy, OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, it’s clear that Anthony and Rosemary are an even worse idea as a couple than the aforementioned ones. They’re two depressed misanthropes on adjacent family farms in central Ireland’s countryside. When we first meet them, Rosemary (a robust Rebecca Bossen) is a blunt piece of work, packing her deceased father’s tobacco pipe for a smoke in the pouring rain. Awkward Anthony (pitch-perfect Chris Milner), a loner who prefers the fields and forests to human company, has a touch of the poetand is arguably a bit more touched than that. But then, what kind of comedy did we expect from the author of Doubt?

The crisis is in process at the outset. After the funeral of Christopher Muldoon, the farmowner next door, Anthony’s father, Tony (the always rewarding Tom Marriott), has decided not to leave his farm to his son. If the farm goes to Anthony, Tony fears, the family line and business will stop with him. “There’s no marriage in the man,” he confides to Aoife, Muldoon’s widow (delightful stage veteran Nan Stephenson).

When Anthony breaks the glum news to Rosemary and then heads to the fields, she takes matters into her own handsand by the scruff of the neck as well. As a result, one of the frankest and funniest wars of words erupts among Rosemary, Tony and Aiofe.

“Tony Reilly, do yourself a service and do not cross me,” Rosemary cautions while making tea. “I’ve been older than all of you since the day I was born … When a person knows what will be, and I have always known, the likes of you should stand aside.”

Though a subsequent conversation and reconciliation between father and son seems more than a bit formulaic, it still reveals the rarity of joy in this hardscrabble settingand the full force of its revelation when it comes.

The resulting courtship, such as it is, takes years and is largely pursued through a combination of reticence and raised voices, with a single warm Guinness in the mix.

Still, in the end, two yearning misfits find the oddest home of allwith each other. Shanley’s moral: If love can find them, it can surely find us all. Strongly recommended.

Correction: This article originally misstated the name of the male lead in Belleville. He is called Zack, not Alex.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Bad romance”