by Grace Treston
A bashful glance, a tentative brush of hands, and a wry smile – first loves are honorable badges worn cautiously by the young. Except for when they are not.
Sometimes, they are pinned on those with more decades of life under their belt than they can count on one hand. In First Love at the Cherry Lane Theatre, a new romance begins for two souls in their sixties. And it’s quite fitting that Charles Mee’s tale of new feelings growing in older beings is housed at the Cherry Lane.
As the oldest continuously-running off-Broadway theater in New York City, it is respected for its charm, history, and character – quite like the reverence we should all have for those who have been around for that little while longer than we have.
The extremely intimate theater – with its 179 seats – is perfect for First Love. The short but bittersweet play runs for 90 minutes with no intermission, allowing this glance into everyday life feel just like a peek through the window of a home.
Directed by Kim Weild, First Love feels much like a pleasant fever dream from the outset. Clever and ethereal scenic design by Edward Pierce is a delight to behold. The small space is utilized extremely well throughout multiple ‘set changes’ – all achieved with minimal effort from the actors themselves.
The simplistic staging of First Love is almost a caricature on real life, helping the big personalities of our two leads to burst forth from places like a mundane park, a sparse apartment, and a small bedroom.
Harold and Edith (Michael O’Keefe and Angelina Fiordellisi) are neither mismatched nor soulmates. The two meet by chance on a park bench, form a connection, and simply choose to exist in each other’s lives from that moment on. Edith even says as much, explaining that a human being doesn’t need the world from a lover – just someone to say “I’ll have lunch with you in the park; we’ll have a picnic” and then spend the night in each other’s arms. Fiordellisi’s childlike enthusiasm as she describes love is wondrous to watch.
But in both reality and in this performance, there is magic in the banality of co-dependency. Still, no one is quite sure why. First Love manages to expertly catch that intangible quality that changes everyday companionship into heart-stopping true love. Edith believes that although we just need a tolerable person to spend our days with, good partners are still far from expendable. “You’re born, you die. In between, if you’re lucky, you have one great love. Not two, not three, just one,” she croons.
Slightly morbid, yes – but oddly calming. Edith thinks in sweeping statements and grand ideas. Meanwhile, the more fragmented Harold thinks in worried calculations and acts in neurotic preemptive strikes.
O’Keefe is so believable in his role as the stubborn but insecure Harold that it’s easy to forget this is not real life. Everything, from the minuscule movements of his fingers to his glances at Fiordellisi, is effortless and sincere.
Taylor Harvey plays the mysterious young woman, flower seller, and waitress who seems to both orchestrate and complicate the events and her cat-like movements across the stage are as mesmerizing as her brief piano-playing.
First Love’s sound design by Christian Frederickson and lighting by Paul Miller deserve particular praise. Perfectly-timed changes in the theater’s atmosphere are well-executed by the team, making for smooth and creative transitions between scenes. These changes are brilliantly assisted by the versatility of Theresa Squire’s costume choices.
Pacing in First Love is an intrigue in and of itself. The true span of this ambiguous timeline is up for debate – is this a day, a month, a year?Common sense would suggest that it takes place over the course of several weeks – usually the time needed for any couple to start assessing where they are going as a unit. But the unique behavior of our two lovers means that even one weekend could be a plausible timeline for these events.
It would be impossible to watch this 90-minute snapshot of life and not feel some kind of jolt in your own memory. The pain and joy of Edith and Harold’s experience is relatable, absorbing, and often quite funny.
First Love is running for a short time only, with its last performance on July 8th. And so, similar to the core message of the play – you should experience the good things in life while you still can.
Photos: Monique Carboni
Tickets are available here. First Love runs until July 8th at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, New York.