Assisted Loving, a beautifully acted, crackingly funny study of some of the indignities of dating, had its world premiere at Capital Repertory Theatre last week, shrewdly melding two disparate demographics through a story that probably plays out in one form or another in many a family: the search for love after the death of a longtime partner.
Sol Katz (played with irascible cheerfulness by Barry Pearl) isn’t so busy mourning his just-deceased wife that he hasn’t time to ramp up a romance with bridge partner and longtime friend Edie (Cheryl Stern) – to the horror of his son David (Brian Sills), who deftly undermines the relationship.
Bob Morris, who has written often for The New York Times Sunday Styles section among many other publications, captured this autobiographical story in his memoir Assisted Loving. Adapting it for the stage has given him the opportunity to broaden characterizations beyond the confines that memoir imposes, inviting us on a two-hour journey through some difficult and compelling character developments.
Front and center is his alter-ego, David, a fussy introvert for whom appearance is paramount, and whose caustic wit too easily turns offensive, killing a succession of his own dating opportunities – all of whom are played by the gifted Max Wolkowitz, who deftly thumbnails a quick succession of characters kept on the credible side of caricature, and then emerges as the fully realized Max, whom he then keeps from seeming too wonderful.
The problem is David, and therein are a strength and a weakness of the piece. The strength is an obvious one that, with any luck, won’t seem too obvious: He’s gay, and he’s not a sympathetic character. What with this country’s lusty rediscovery of its rainbow shades of bigotry, it’s vital to let people experience a variety of relationships. While the hardcore haters probably aren’t buying many theater tickets, it’s your friend who’s on the fence who stands to be reassured not only that same-sex relationships are normal but also subject to familiar emotional vicissitudes. Watching David find his measure of happiness reminds the differently oriented us that our stories are the same.
But David’s journey is made unnecessarily difficult by what I assume is the playwright’s decision to maintain the character’s prickly unpleasantness to almost the very end. His transformation is almost Scrooge-like (and thus echoes a story with its own race-hatred problem). David’s unhappiness informs his wisecracks, fueling many of the play’s many laughs, but there’s room for him to display a greater self-awareness earlier on.
The play opens in the cemetery where his mother has just been buried, and he has time for a short, moving monologue before his father enters and the fireworks begin. Where David is always attired tastefully, Sol sports screeching plaids. Taken to task for his appearance, he says. “Dignity is your thing, not mine.”
Edie joins them, but the planned lunch trip – “Ground Round,” says Sol. “I have coupons.” – is scuttled by a quarrel between her and Sol. Which takes us to the dilemma of dating in the modern age, especially when the datee’s age predates that of the computer. David sets up his father with a JDate.com account, and the responses are suitably frightening. This time it’s Stern who burns through a succession of costume pieces and wigs to portray a medley of lonely candidates, and she’s superb at it.
We’re taken through a succession of locations suggested by a few pieces of furniture and a set of busy projection screens, an excellent collaboration by set designer Paul Tate dePoo III and projection (and lighting) designer Robert Denton. Director Gordon Greenberg knows this theater well and knows how to make effective playing areas out of every corner of it, giving an effortless flow to the proceedings.
“When do I get any encouragement from you?” demands Sol as his son’s constant carping goes on, and there’s more room for that encouragement than the current script allows. With David’s graveside talks to his late mother a convention that’s established at the top of the show, this could be a vehicle for some more reflective moments – particularly at the top of Act Two, where a cheap and easy Act One curtain is paid off with the flimsiest of explanations.
“Love doesn’t just happen,” an angry Sol tells David during the second act. “It’s a decision.” It’s a statement that helps David turn himself around, and we know the character is softening when he doesn’t give his father a hard time for the faux pas of wearing a white dinner jacket in on New Year’s Eve.
And, like the champagne Sol is sipping, Assisted Loving is a bubbly froth whose dryness keeps it palatable. It could use more body, but you’ll enjoy the celebration.
Assisted Loving, by Bob Morris, directed by Gordon Greenberg, Capital Repertory Theatre, through Feb. 19.