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Theatre in Review: First Love (Cherry Lane Theatre)

Taylor Harvey, Michael O'Keefe, Angelina Fiordelissi. Photo: Monique Carboni.

It's time to steel ourselves for the rise of what must be called karaoke drama. A couple of weeks ago, Theater Breaking Through Barriers opened a revival of A. R. Gurney's The Fourth Wall, the action of which is punctuated by cast members sawing the air with off-key renditions of Cole Porter songs. This sinister trend continues at the Cherry Lane, which, in the middle of the collection of airy fancies titled First Love, treats us, rather dubiously, to vocalizing by performers who could not honestly describe themselves on their resumes as "actors who sing." First, Michael O'Keefe takes a flyer on Nat King Cole's "For Sentimental Reasons," then Angelina Fiordellisi, his costar, attempts "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" before they duet on "September Song." Also, Taylor Harvey, who appears as -- well, I don't know what, although she is listed, unhelpfully in the program as "Young Woman," wears strange costumes, and lurks upstage, striking Greek goddess attitudes -- tries out "Young at Heart." Don't expect to see this trio at 54 Below anytime soon.

That neither of these plays is new makes one fear that a lurking conspiracy is at work. If we must, as these scripts require, endure such off-topic musical interludes, let me note that New York is filled with actors who have perfectly pleasant singing voices. And, to the young playwrights and directors of today, I offer but one word: Resist!

Otherwise, it's difficult to know what to say about First Love, which consists of a series of fey vaudeville routines, mildly Beckettian in nature and packed with aphorisms about life and love that could have been lifted from fortune cookies. Edith and Harold meet squabbling over space on a park bench. But they soon bond over a mutual list of past cultural signifiers that, bewilderingly, runs the gamut from Castro to the conductor Fritz Reiner and includes Che Guevara, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Leon Trotsky. They move on to airheaded exchanges like the following:

Edith: We lost a lot when we lost communism.

Harold: Isn't that the truth?

Edith: I never said I loved Stalin, but where is the inhibition anymore if the bastards know you have nowhere else to turn?

At times such as these, it's easy to feel that First Love isn't about love at all -- that, really, playwright Charles Mee is talking to himself, lost in nostalgia for a long-gone midcentury American bohemia. (I must add that this passage includes a thoroughly unnecessary, yet hilarious, joke about once-feared critic John Simon.)

Anyway, when not warbling or musing on the dictators of yesteryear, Harold and Edith make rather halting progress toward a relationship. They move into her apartment, where she frequently rearranges stacks of magazines, a Sisyphean task that is never completed. There are confessions: Harold admits, "I just like to rub my buttocks on someone else's buttocks. I like to kiss someone's buttocks, too." "I like feet," adds Edith at the end of a speech about a man whose MO was to knock women over, unshoe them, and suck their toes.

There's more, including a dance in which Harold, unwisely, strips down to his underwear while leaping about. He also wrestles, furiously, with a swan-shaped kiddie pool. (His hands burst into flames at one point, in a neat special effect that remains mysterious in its intentions.) Getting the jitters, he says that he woke up in the afternoon to hear "women's voices in the apartment below and I thought I had come to live finally in a home invaded by sluts!" Quite apart from the weakness of this line, it is interesting to contemplate how there could be a lower-level apartment, since it has already been established that Edith lives in the basement. Later, denouncing Edith as being a bottomless pit of need, he adds, "This is why men drive naked women into a pit with bayonets." Edith, ever the phrasemaker, replies, "And this is why women want to shoot men on sight. This is why they flush boy babies down the toilet at birth." In any case, they go several more rounds before the final, thoroughly unsurprising, clinch.

Throughout all of this, we are supposed to be witnessing what Edith describes as "the mystery of two people finding their way to the same particularity," but because Harold and Edith neither represent plausible human beings nor sympathetic sensibilities, there's no reason to believe that -- and even less to care whether -- they will end up in each other's arms. Under Kim Weild's direction, O'Keefe and Fiordellisi are nimble and game performers, willing and able to contort themselves into whatever attitude Mee dreams up, but the net effect is of watching balls rolling in separate tracks, following their prearranged paths, never meeting in any significant way.

Harvey is an attractive presence with a fine speaking voice, so maybe the next time out we'll get a sense of what she can do. Edward Pierce's set, a kind of Magritte painting come to life with walls depicting a blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds, a green park bench, and Astroturf deck, practically screams the news that we are in for an exceedingly coy entertainment. (It is very nicely done, however.) Theresa Squire's costumes are seemingly calculated to make the leads seem unattractive, thus, perhaps, underlining the spiritual nature of their attraction. Paul Miller's lighting and Christian Frederickson's sound -- which includes underscoring for the songs mentioned above, along with a spot of Aaron Copland and an opera aria -- are both solid.

Well, one man's delightful pastry is another's inducement to sugar shock. At the performance I attended, many seemed charmed by these antics; to me, this is first love without rapture, transport, or, most of all, wit. -- David Barbour

(19 June 2018)

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