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The Honor of Thomas Becket

First Love

By New York City
Thank God for actors. Without a transcendent lead female performance by Ruth Maleczech and a sturdy star turn by Frederick Neumann, Charles L. Mee's play First Love would have been no more than an intellectual exercise about the nature of romance. Not that the play isn't ambitious and often surprising, but a schematic, non-naturalistic approach to its subject matter argues against any emotional involvement on the part of the New York Theatre Workshop audience. Only the acting, which vaults over the limitations of the piece itself, makes one occasionally feel humanity peeking through the prose.

The title, First Love, suggests a story about young people; Mee's first surprise is that the two central characters are senior citizens. Dowdy Edith (Ruth Maleczech) awakens a rumpled, old man named Harold (Frederick Neumann) who is stretched out, sleeping on a park bench. She wants to sit down. Grouchy and grumpy, Harold finally relents only to discover that he has quite a lot in common with this pushy old crone; they are both unreformed lefties from a bygone political era. The pair kindles a relationship based on shared memories of people they knew and causes they lost.

Mee's second surprise is his decision to examine love with a certain dispassion. His characters speak lines that have a passing similarity to everyday language only insofar as the words possess vowels and consonants. This choice, while thoroughly valid, requires that the playwright compensate for the lack of reality with intellectual rigor, clever writing, and pointed insights; instead, what we often get is arch, forced dialogue. First Love does provide the occasional shock of recognition, but falls short in so many other respects.

As the play unfolds, we follow the elderly couple as they fall in love and then do everything possible, in fits and starts, to mess up their relationship. Now, that's real life! The fits are pretty good theater--as when Edith, in a rage at her wayward man, smashes plates on the floor. The starts are another matter--i.e., the start of almost every scene. As directed by the playwright's sister, Erin B. Mee, First Love moves forward with an awkwardness that heightens the play's artificiality. We travel from the park to a restaurant where a waitress (Jennifer Hall) arrives and eventually exits through a refrigerator door. That's cute, but it hardly makes the scene more credible. The characters move like chess pieces across the set: They travel from Edith's apartment (you can tell by the couch) to a more symbolic locale under a leafless tree branch that extends through two walls, its smaller branches spreading like a dying hand over the center of the stage. Klara Zieglerova's flashy, provocative set fully serves the play's dehumanizing sense of distance.

When the characters do move us, it is usually despite the play, not because of it. Maleczech cunningly modulates her performance to give nuance and subtlety to what would otherwise be a caricature of a woman; she moves from loneliness to love and back again with a pitiable honesty. Her counterpart, Neumann, doesn't offer the same rich palette of acting choices, but his blustery presence gives Maleczech much to work against. Jennifer Hall, who also plays Neumann's fantasy lover, is far better as a campy vamp than as the gum-cracking waitress.

Though there is some amusing stuff in First Love (including a bare tushy-rubbing scene between the two lovers), most of the play is unequivocally earnest, bespeaking a seriousness of purpose. Unfortunately, it is neither emotionally nor intellectually compelling. You might want to give the kiss-off to Mee's First Love and hope that one or both of the other two parts of his trilogy, titled True Love and Big Love, will prove to be more worthy when they come to New York City stages this fall.


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