Tom Aldredge and James Sutorius in 2 Lives(Phot © T. Charles Erickson)
Tom Aldredge and James Sutorius in 2 Lives
(Phot © T. Charles Erickson)
As was the case with Lee Blessing's Thief River, one admires Arthur Laurents' newish play 2 Lives for the fact that it deals with a long-term relationship between two older gay men even while regretting that the work is seriously flawed, as evidenced by the current production at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.

According to an author's note in the program, "a good deal of 2 Lives is autobiographical," and "the love of the two men at the center...is the heart of the play just as it is the heart of the playwright's life." This is a reference to Laurents and his partner, Tom Hatcher, fictionalized in 2 Lives as playwright Matt Singer and his partner, Howard Thompson, who has landscaped the "small private park in a village in the Hamptons" where the action unfolds.

From a reviewer's standpoint, the play is vexing because the occurrence that abruptly ends a celebration of Howard's birthday in Act I is intended to shock the audience, yet it would be virtually impossible to review 2 Lives without revealing that occurrence. So you should stop reading right here and now if you want to avoid the following spoiler: Both acts begin with Matt reading to Howard excerpts from his new play, but their second-act dialogue is all in Matt's mind, since Howard is mortally felled by a stroke in the final moments of the first act.

The relationship between Matt and Howard, both in life and after Howard's death, is the emotional core of the play. Adding resonance to the situation is Howard's dotty old mother, who goes around singing snatches of "After the Ball," "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," and other ancient songs. Unfortunately, none of what the five remaining characters have to say or do is at all interesting. There's Leo Kondracki, a film and theater producer who's supposedly planning to mount Matt's play Robberies on Broadway with the British actress Nerissa Connor starring. Then there's Willi Thurman, an annoying friend of Matt's who's enamored of Nerissa. Rounding out the group that has gathered to fete Howard on his natal day are the hunky young caretaker of the park, Scooter Jenkins, and his wife, Maryanne.

As if Howard's sudden demise weren't enough, Matt has other things on his mind. Though he reacts rather calmly when he hears that a local amateur production of one of his plays has been canceled because of its gay content, he's very upset when he learns that Leo will be producing a play other than Robberies as a Broadway vehicle for Nerissa. Apparently, Willi somehow has the clout to be instrumental in Leo's decision. (During intermission, a lady seated nearby asked me, "Can you please explain what's going on?" I was able to enlighten her on a plot point or two but, to be honest, some of the plot's niceties were unclear to me as well.)

2 Lives is a disappointment from the man who wrote The Time of the Cuckoo and such films as The Turning Point and The Way We Were, not to mention the exemplary books for the musicals West Side Story and Gypsy. This is self-evident despite the opinion of Rutgers University professor Gabriel Miller, expressed in his introduction to a recent anthology of Laurents' works, that 2 Lives is not only "Laurents' finest play" but "must also rank among the great works of the American theater." (Delusional statements of this sort do Laurents no favors, so it's difficult to understand why they were allowed to be published.)

The George Street production is most notable for a gorgeous set by James Youmans and for three excellent performances. The veteran Tom Aldredge is superb as Matt, James Sutorius is wonderfully warm as Howard, and the amazing Helen Gallagher triumphs as his mother -- a role that might well have embarrassed a lesser actress. Matt Cavenaugh has little to do as Scooter but does it well and looks great while doing it. On the downside, Jim Bracchita is rather bland as Leo; the usually terrific Dee Hoty is woefully miscast as Nerissa in that she can't manage a remotely credible British accent; and, as Willi and Maryanne (respectively), Joanne Camp and Jessica Dickey have been allowed to overact alarmingly by director David Saint.

By all means, go and see 2 Lives for its several pages of fine writing and for the excellent performances of Aldredge, Sutorius, and Gallagher; but please don't expect the masterpiece that Gabriel Miller (and, presumably, David Saint and Arthur Laurents himself) erroneously believe this play to be.