Two people meet cute, or kind of cute, start talking, and before you know it romance is blooming. That’s nice. We like to read stories and see films and plays about people falling in love. However, we also like to see some complications along the way (“The course of true love never did run smooth”), but until the last several minutes of Joe DiPietro’s “The Last Romance,” which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, it’s rather smooth sailing for the two aged love birds, which is nice for them but it doesn’t make for very arresting theater.
As directed by Maggie McGlone Jennings, this exercise in love among the elder class generates little more than a gentle smile mixed with an occasional grimace. Why? Well, the pace is somewhat plodding, the jokes are few and far between, and the two central characters are just not that interesting. When there’s not much going on up on the stage the mind has a tendency to wander.
Set primarily in a dog-walking park (compliments of scenic designer William Russell Stark), with small side sets extreme stage right and left depicting a parlor and…well…I’m not exactly sure what – the foyer of an apartment building? – the play opens with octogenarian Ralph Bellini (Chet Carlin) changing his normal walking routine and plopping himself down on a bench in the dog park, but he has an ulterior motive: he’s got his eye out for a lady he saw walking her dog there yesterday. Before said lady appears, Rose Tagliatelle (Kate Konigisor) tracks him down and berates him – he didn’t tell her he was going out; he’s going to be late for supper; he could have another black-out episode (which she alludes to by the date of the incident, as if it is the Ides of March). Is this his wife? No, we will soon learn this is his sister, an eternally self-effacing Italian stereotype.
Ralph shoos her away just as a lady appears carrying a chihuahua named Peaches. This is Carol (Rochelle Slovin), the lady who has caught Ralph’s eye. Their initial conversation is strained, but Ralph is persistent and over the course of the first act he wins her over. The greatest dramatic tension in all of this is whether or not little Peaches will find the hole in the fence and make a break for it. He finally does, which throws Carol into Ralph’s arms in great distress. So the audience is sent out for a 15-minute intermission to wonder and worry if the dog will be found. I didn’t see many concerned faces.
Things become a little more interesting in the second act, when, yes, Peaches is found (thank God!), Rose reveals a bit more of her history (she’s been denying her husband a divorce for 22 years because she’s a good Catholic), Carol comes clean about her husband (he’s alive but no longer kicking) and Ralph fesses up about his blackout experience. The problem is, it takes a whole lot of empathy to care about any of these characters, mainly because the characters themselves don’t really seem to truly care about their problems. It’s all surface sturm und drang, manufactured manipulation that just doesn’t work.
A case in point. There’s a sub-plot. Ralph once dreamed of becoming an opera singer and, when he was 20 years old, he auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. His younger self, affably played by Stephen Mir, appears now and again to sing snippets from various operas and to make manifest the dream denied (one wishes DiPietro had given us more interaction between the aged Ralph and his “memory”).
Ralph got a call back, but he never received the message, so his dream died aborning. A dream dashed can eat at the soul, but though Ralph tells his story you just don’t get the feeling he really cares all that much that he was denied his chance to fulfill his dream. The final revelation of the missed call-back is handled as a throw-away – no build, no tension, no release. “You basically ruined my life but, don’t worry, no problem.”
The same lack of emotion suffuses this production’s final scenes, which are meant to be bittersweet but, if you don’t much care about the characters, the closing moments are neither bitter nor sweet, but they could have been.
Playwrights write lines for the characters they create, but it’s the job of the actors, guided by the director, to bring these characters to life and give “meaning” to these lines. Admittedly, this is not DiPietro’s best work – the writing seems formulaic at best – but there’s still enough in the script to engage the audience. Carlin does his best to bring Ralph to life, but these efforts are dampened by Slovin’s rather stilted, one-dimensional portrayal of Carol. His lines seem to bounce off her rather than engender responses. There are moments when you might ask yourself, are these two characters in the same play, on the same planet? More important, do these characters really carry the burdens they say they carry? Their back stories are filled with disappointment, loss and the emotional grinding down that is the stuff of life. The characters eventually tell you all of this, but the actors don’t make you feel it in your gut.
“Last Romance” runs through May 10. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.