In 2014, how many Christian-American mothers would recoil in horror if their 24-year-old daughter told them they were marrying a Jewish man? I'm guessing not many, but what if that man was 53 years old? Paddy Chayefsky imagines just such a relationship in Middle of the Night, which was first produced for television in 1954. It transferred to Broadway in 1956 starring a ''Ten Commandments"-era Edward G. Robinson. The show is now receiving its first New York City revival in a sharp production by Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. At every turn it offers a sensitive perspective on how our view of relationships has changed, and what has stayed the same.
Betty (Nicole Lowrance) is a young New York City receptionist married to George (Todd Bartels), an attractive young musician working thousands of miles away in Las Vegas. They have what Betty calls a "physical marriage." The sex is always wild, but Betty wants more out of a spouse, like extended chats and long walks in the snow. Enter her employer, Jerry Kingsley (Jonathan Hadary). Jerry is a recent widower and is the owner of a garment factory. When Jerry comes over to Betty's house one day to pick up some sales slips, she unloads her marital woes on him and they quickly develop a relationship of their own. It's kind of like the plot of Machinal, but topsy-turvy.
Betty plans to divorce George and remarry Jerry. This doesn't go down well with Betty's mother (Amelia Campbell), who disapproves of divorce and '''really'' doesn't want her daughter marrying a Jewish man. Jerry's sister Evelyn (Denise Lute) is also scandalized, calling Betty a "tramp" before even meeting her. Despite all odds, this May-December Romeo and Juliet are going to try to make it work.
Director Jonathan Silverstein has led his cast to nuanced and realistic performances. Bartels is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in his portrayal of Jerry's son-in-law Jack, but becomes instantly more wolfish as George (several of the actors double roles). His chemistry with Lowrance is palpable, adding to the complicated nature of this play: It's not that there's no attraction between Betty and George, it's just not the kind of connection Betty wants.
Hadary is spectacular in his authentic-feeling portrayal of a middle-aged man who is at once forceful and kind. His self-effacing demeanor makes him quite likable. This is no easy task when he's forced to say lines to Betty like, "You make me think of [my daughter] when she was ten years old," and, "Please, Betty, don't put on lipstick. To jump out of bed and put on lipstick, it's like a whore."
The design is similarly fully realized, but in an efficient way: Set designer Steven C. Kemp uses the same layout for both Betty and Jerry's apartments (though his is a luxury flat afforded at a whopping $310 a month). The transition of space is signified by a chandelier that descends from the rafters each time there is a scene in Jerry's apartment. The door that previously led to Betty's bedroom magically transforms to the outside door; Betty's outside door becomes the passage to Jerry's bedroom. This mostly works, even though it's a bit hard to believe that Jerry doesn't know where Betty's phone is when he keeps his phone in the exact same place, on the exact same kind of desk in his apartment. Costume designer Jennifer Paar has created a visually sumptuous tapestry of heavy wool coats and floral-print dresses cinched at the (very high) waist with a belt. It's undoubtedly a period piece, but also oddly prescient.
While queasiness about interfaith relationships has waned in the past six decades, intergenerational relationships are still pretty taboo and the subject of much public scrutiny. In many ways this is understandable: The leverage the older (and often wealthier) partner holds over the younger, coupled with the likelihood that the younger partner will outlive the older by decades lends itself to an automatic power imbalance. Middle of the Night offers an idealized vision of the May-December romance, but one that we can all cheer for nonetheless.