Robert Eli, Rosie Benton, and John McMartin
in Saturn Returns
(© Joan Marcus)
Robert Eli, Rosie Benton, and John McMartin
in Saturn Returns
(© Joan Marcus)
Noah Haidle's best known plays, like Mr. Marmalade and Rag and Bone, are absurd black comedies. Conversely, his newest work, Saturn Returns, currently at the Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, is an uncharacteristically wistful and mostly straightforward memory play. Although both too slight and overlong at just 70 minutes, it's a gently touching work, which Nicholas Martin's first-rate production showcase to fine advantage.

The play, which depicts an unnamed man at three distinct stages in his life, isn't entirely without the kind of high-concept twist that distinguishes Haidle's work. The man is played by three different actors -- at 88 by John McMartin, at 58 by James Rebhorn, and at 28 by Robert Eli -- while the three women in his life are all played by the same actress (Rosie Benton).

The first woman we meet, Suzanne, has been hired to give assisted care to the old man -- who seems sharp as a tack, in humorous spirits and in fine physical health. When she decides to leave because she isn't truly needed, the man's façade cracks to reveal a desperate loneliness and a helplessness that moves her to stay. As he points out, she reminds him of his late daughter Zephyr, who we meet next in a flashback from 1978, who in turn reminds him of his late wife Loretta, who we meet in flashback from 1948.

Although Haidle avoids a pat epiphany for his main character, a sentimental feeling of regret connects the scenes. The man remembers his wife as always in wait of him while he was distracted by work, and his daughter as his constant caregiver at the expense of her own autonomy. There are echoes of the 88-year old man's conversation with Suzanne in the scenes when he is younger, which bring a dynamic texture to the play and remind us that we are seeing the past as the man wishes to remember it in his isolated old age.

By the time the scenes rotate a second time, the playwright has sketched a compassionate portrait of a man who is haunted by the profound loss of the two most significant women in his lifetime, and whose hindsight offers him little solace. The emotional pay-off comes not in a big dramatic reveal ,but in quiet, unforced moments of his reflection and sadness. Unfortunately, the third series of scenes -- which includes a bit of unconvincing and far too tidy narrative business with Suzanne -- yields diminished dramatic returns.

McMartin's beautifully understated performance is central to the success of this production; he achieves his effects simply and steers clear of pathos. Just as commendably, all three male actors register believably as the same character decades apart. Benton capably manages the difficult task of playing each of the three women as all the same yet distinct: when she enters as one character, you feel the absence of the one who just exited.