When someone dies, do you mourn the time you lost with them, or celebrate the time you had? That is the central question gently humming throughout Calvin Trillin's thoughtful two-hander About Alice, now making its world premiere at Theatre for a New Audience. Humorous and heartfelt, this touching tribute to Trillin's late wife is not just the memoir of a marriage, but an intimate look into a lost culture shared only by two.
Trillin is a longtime writer for The New Yorker and The Nation, as well as an author of 31 books, two of which reference his wife in the title: Alice, Let's Eat (1978) and Travels With Alice (1989). Trillin clearly adored his wife, and that comes through even more so onstage, where we get to witness their relationship from first meeting to final goodbye.
Calvin (Jeffrey Bean) met Alice (Carrie Paff) at a party in 1963 for the now defunct satirical magazine Monocle. He remembers her wearing a white hat, sassily cocked to the side, while she insists that she never owned such a hat. I walked away believing the straightforward Alice, suspecting that the writer of humorous essays tends to remember the more amusing version of the story.
The two reenact such moments and occasionally interject direct-address asides to the audience like footnotes. It feels like hearing the quick life story (disputed points and all) of two new and highly theatrical friends. We hear about Trillin's childhood in Kansas City and hers in Westchester. She makes fun of his "Kansas City act" whenever the New Yorker staffer pretends to be a humble Midwestern boy, and he refers to her as a "fancy Eastern girl" (even though her childhood was more financially precarious than his). They build a home together in Manhattan, have two daughters, and seem ridiculously happy. But when Alice is diagnosed with lung cancer in 1976, it threatens to upend their idyllic life.
As Calvin, Bean embodies an intelligent and inoffensive humorist, a man perfectly at ease chasing a sincere observation with a one-liner. He tempers wit with languor and a delivery as dry as the Missouri plains. It's as if he is ever-ready to step into the panel of Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me!
Paff is far more serious as Alice, whom Calvin describes as the George Burns to his Gracie Allen in their married couple comedy routine. But she's just as often the Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio, reminding Calvin of their responsibility to others. With aching sincerity, Paff radiates Alice's passion for honesty and kindness. "He doesn't have a very nice life," she argues to Calvin when a contractor tries to overcharge them on a home renovation, "and we're so lucky." And considering all the other lives they could have lived, she's right.
Director Leonard Foglia stages their happy memories with elegant simplicity, creating every scene with the table and two chairs that constitute the most active part of Riccardo Hernandez's set. Russell H. Champa bathes the stage in soft incandescent lighting, giving everything a peaceful glow. Two doors flank an upstage screen, with the one stage left serving as an entrance, and the one stage right acting as Alice's wardrobe.
It feels appropriate that Alice changes through a whole closetful of David C. Woolard's tastefully vibrant costumes, while Calvin remains in his writerly uniform of brown pants and a blue blazer over an open-collar shirt. Now relegated to the realm of memory, Alice transforms over the course of several decades while Calvin remains the same. By the end, she slips into the upstage shadows just as easily as she slipped in.
Yes, this is a play about cancer, but it is no depression-fest. About Alice is the story of an unlucky thing that happened to two otherwise very fortunate people who managed to find each other and spend 38 wonderful years together. For 75 charming minutes, Trillin invites us to bask in some of that warmth.