“Lil’s 90th” -- Long Wharf Theatre Stage II

--Irene Backalenick

The most arresting aspect of “Lil’s 90th” is the fact that the two actors (David Margulies and Lois Smith), who play the leads as Charlie and Lil, are fine, veteran performers. Moreover, Smith and Margulies are a couple in real life, thus bringing a reality to their on-stage marriage.

Understandably, they work well together, like two sides of a coin. It is a joy to watch Margulies go through his paces, putting his masterly touch on this piece as he does in all his plays. Smith, however, is slow getting off the ground, approaching her role with hesitancy. But she gradually takes hold, gathering strength as the story unfolds and reaching her peak in the final act. At that point she becomes a would-be cabaret singer, looking positively sexy in wig and glittering costume, despite her years. She is a ninety year-old hot number. (The actress herself is 78.)

Smith and Margulies are more or less aided by their supporting cast. Kristine Nielsen creates a flustered, anxious daughter, and Nick Blaemire and Lucy Walters (as grandson Tommy and his girl friend) add solid musical back-up (though less satisfactory dramatic back-up). But Walters does have a charming scene with Margulies, in which she explains to him the mysteries of a cell phone. It’s an endearing moment, though it adds nothing to the story.

But the play itself is another matter. The best that can be said for this Darci Picoult’s work is that it is a play-in-process, with potentially good ideas. But its  opening
is tedious, as its characters natter on about trivia (what to wear to Lil’s birthday party), and its closing peters out with issues unresolved. Only midway, when a devastating scam played on the family has been discovered, does the piece offer genuine emotional impact.

What “Lil’s 90th” is about, as the title indicates, is the upcoming Big Day. Charlie and Lil have shared a 65-year marriage, with Lil a stay-at-home wife. But now she is determined to realize a lifetime dream. To observe her birthday, she has rented a cabaret, invited friends and family, and will give a concert.

Meanwhile, Charlie, a warm, loving, gullible man (and, alas, something of a gambler) is descending into senility. He foolishly falls for a scam, thinking to give his wife a million-dollar birthday present. Lil must cope with this, realizing their life savings are gone.

It is too bad that a play with these interesting themes never realizes its potential.  “Lil’s 90th” calls for considerable heightening, tightening and deepening before playwright Picoult can realize her own dream.

This also appears in the Connecticut Post and on www.nytheaterscene.com
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