Pleasures to by Found in the Performances
By David A. Rosenberg
It’s giving nothing away to say that we know from almost the very start of “Lil’s 90th” that Lil’s husband, Charlie, has fallen for a financial scam. The trouble with Darci Picoult’s sweet-natured play, being given its world premiere at Long Wharf, is that the rest of the evening is not so much theme and variation, but numbing repetition. Since there’s enough material here for, say, a sketch, what’s stretched to two hours might have been handled in half that time.
So look for pleasures elsewhere, mainly in the performances of veterans Lois Smith and David Margulies whose precise details of voice, movement and emotion evoke sympathetic audience reactions. Like fine instruments, they play upon each other, and us. His restlessness and her vulnerability are bedrocked with underlying strength. As a couple married for 65 years (they’re a couple in “real” life, too), the actors render disagreements and impatience with tender mercies. Billed as “a late-life love story,” the evening goes from knowing sidelong glances to eyes that fill with moonbeams to stares into the void.
That Lil and Charlie are made for each other is heartwarming but not enough to sustain a work without much of a dramatic arc. Playwright Picoult’s characters are what they are, not more. Yes, they have a crisis in Charlie’s gullibility, but that doesn’t lead to insights into characters or possible themes beyond, “He forgets and you adjust; He makes a mess and you adjust.”
Lil and Charlie live a peaceful, middle-class life in New York City. Their one daughter is caring, their grandson is helpful. When they realize they can’t battle Charlie’s incipient Alzheimer’s, Lil must keep tabs on him while going ahead with plans for her 90th birthday party. Guests from all over will witness the fulfillment of her dream: to sing in public. Much of “Lils 90th” is devoted to her rehearsing for the event with her keyboard-playing grandson and his violin-playing girlfriend, all the while worrying that Charlie is giving away their money in anticipation of a big payoff from some remote Canadian schemers.
Jo Bonney, heretofore a director of more substantial works, injects a feeling of impending doom and desperation into proceedings that are more drifty than fervid. Both Smith and Margulies fill their roles with a firm grounding in what a long and comfortable relationship actually means. Kristine Nielsen, she of the loopy mien, makes daughter Stephanie into a bundle of barely suppressed anxieties. Nick Blaemire is the empathetic grandson, while Lucy Walters is his uncomprehending girlfriend.
Significantly, one of the production’s sponsors is Yale-New Haven Hospital. But “Lil’s 90th” doesn’t integrate its strands as a work about Alzheimer’s (the name is not mentioned) or an examination of marital longevity or a warning against crooks. Rather, it settles for a valentine to the accommodations that couples agree to and the fortitude necessary to form a long-term relationship, even in the face of inevitable disintegration. Admirable as that purpose is, the result is an over-extended and parched evening.
This review appeared in The Hour on Jan. 17.