David Margulies and Lois Smith in Lil's 90th
(© T. Charles Erickson)
David Margulies and Lois Smith in Lil's 90th
(© T. Charles Erickson)
The ancient Greeks would have approved Darci Picoult's game plan for Lil's 90th, now premiering under Jo Bonney's deft direction at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. We are forced to sit by as a well-meaning mortal -- played with marvelous earthiness by David Margulies -- makes a series of untoward choices. Picoult proves herself adept at ratcheting up the anxiety level. Gasps arise with every fresh misstep. Soon, we're feeling as conflicted and protective as the family members positioned in the front ranks of disaster.

Octogenarians Charlie (Margulies) and Lil (the equally superb Lois Smith) are enjoying their 65th year of marriage. The opening scene -- which involves pudding and Reddi-Whip -- establishes a level of affection and intimacy that even avid young lovers might envy. With a dollop of friendly teasing, the pair is making plans for Lil's chosen birthday celebration, an "early bird cabaret" starring none other than Lil herself, making good on seven decades of a deferred dream.

The serpent slips into this garden so surreptitiously that it's only in retrospect that you see it rearing its ugly head. At a quiet juncture, when no one is home, Charlie fields a call from Canada. Soon he's sneaking about on bogus errands and making grandiose boasts to grandson Tommy (Nick Blaemire) and his leggy girlfriend Deirdre (Lucy Walters), a pair of aspiring musicians who will be playing at Lil's party and are on hand to help her to prepare. "I got money coming," Charlie exults to them in private, demanding their complicity in keeping his secret. "BIG money."

It doesn't take long for the truth to come out, and by then the damage is done. What's interesting, from this point on, is to see the characters' true colors emerge. Charlie and Lil's daughter, Stephie (a tamped-down Kristine Nielsen), has already shown herself to be a willfully dowdy ditherer who favors the protective coloration of a peahen. And fond as she is of her parents, she'll prove ineffectual right up to a curtain-closer of a rally. Fueled by the ardor of youth, Tommy takes a more proactive stance, but his rash reactions don't really help. It falls to Lil to try to remedy the situation: she must risk alienating her increasingly irascible life partner to try to protect their life savings.

While the play does seem overlong at 2 ½ hours -- and certain sentimental leanings get perhaps a too-hearty push -- ultimately every glancing remark and interaction earns its stage time. Indeed, Picoult, Bonney, and this extraordinary cast have succeeded so well in fleshing out these characters that we end up feeling for them as if they were our own family.