“The Last Romance” at The Ivoryton Playhouse

By Brooks Appelbaum

It goes without saying that when a production has a small cast and a small set, every detail -- and especially every performance -- must gleam. Naturally, this is especially true when the script itself lacks dramatic tension and comic zest. Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance, at Ivoryton Playhouse, lacks both, and it thus presents any cast with a challenge. This tale of octogenarian Ralph wooing the beautiful but oddly standoffish Carol, has a gentle poignancy at times, but is in the main predictable and slow. The right director, casting the right actors, could perhaps awaken the sleepy story. But a crucial role is cast most unwisely, and the result is a show with too little sweetness and appeal.

Sitting by himself on a park bench in a dog park -- with no dog -- we learn early that Ralph (Chet Carlin) is a lonely fellow who uses humor to make the best of his monotonous days. After the death of this wife, twelve years earlier, his sister moved in to take care of him, and though Rose (Kate Konigisor) clearly loves her brother, she is one of those unfortunate people who expresses love through nagging, worrying, and generally keeping Ralph on a very short leash (excuse the pun).

Ralph’s life begins to change when Carol (Rochelle Slovin) -- beautiful, glamorously dressed, and enticingly mysterious -- comes into the park with her Chihuahua-mix, Peaches (the rescue dog-turned-professional actor, Roxy, who supplies much of the evening’s charm). The slow-moving plot charts Ralph’s wooing of Carol, Carol’s gradual thaw, and Rose’s growing anxiety over the possible loss of the brother who represents the only warmth she knows.

Ralph’s younger self, beautifully played and sung by Stephen Mir, adds more than a hint of theatrical magic to these proceedings. At touchingly appropriate moments, this youth materializes, providing Italian arias that capture Ralph’s memories and express his yearnings. Ralph auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera as a lad, and opera has remained a central joy in his life. This grandly outsized and glorious genre proves a bittersweet counterpoint to his now mundane existence.

Chet Carlin finds the right blend of humor and gentle pathos in Ralph, and he is a pleasure to watch. As Rose, Kate Konigisor demonstrates the potential for nuanced pathos late in the play, but the director has failed to modulate her scolding and yelling so that by the time we are supposed to sympathize with Rose it’s almost too late.

Since we do sympathize with Ralph from the beginning, the central figure (for us as for him) becomes Carol, whose gradually revealed needs and secrets provide the evening’s only real suspense. However, the casting of Rochelle Slovin was a serious mistake. Slovin, though appropriately beautiful, turns in an entirely wooden performance. She is natural and persuasive only when Carol is expressing motherly love and concern for Peaches. One wonders what the director might have done to help Slovin realize this pivotal character. Carol may seem mysterious at first, but at the core she is uncomplicated. An actress with ease and warmth would have had no difficulty in winning us over and providing this production with a much-needed glow.

Chemistry is mercurial by definition, but again, casting well is a start, and there is no chemistry between Carlin and Slovin. On the contrary, their most passionate encounter is directed for laughs. This is a grave mistake, implying, as it does, that genuine sensual pleasure belongs only to youth, and when older people kiss we are to find this funny. In a script devoted to the lonely wistfulness that come to many of us with age, one could hope, at the very least, that the lovers would be directed to express all the sweet ardor possible in their roles.

The scenic design, by William Russell Stark, is serviceable and pleasing enough to look at, though when our young Max walks across the upper tier of a two tiered set, at times it seems as though he’s either floating above the action (perhaps intentionally) or his lower legs have been cut off at the knee (definitely a problem that at times distracted this viewer from an otherwise lovely moment).┬áThe lighting and sound design by Tate R. Burmeister, are more successful, and most pleasing of all are Vicki Blake’s costumes. They tell us just what we need to know about each character, and this is especially important in the case of Carol’s (Slovin’s) transformation.

One comes away from The Last Romance with two conflicting feelings. On the one hand, we would all be richer for the existence of more plays that engage, as this one does, with America’s most willfully ignored human realities: aging and death. On the other hand, when theater is done well, we are enthralled no matter what the age of the characters. The Last Romance may have all the best intentions, but if romance means hope, sparkle, and a bit of wishful thinking, the Ivoryton Playhouse production fails to provide its audience with that kind of magic.

“The Last Romance” runs through May 10. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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