by: Samuel L. Leiter
A familiar journalism adage goes: “Dog bites man.” Not news. “Man bites dog.” News. One might also say, “Older man marries much younger woman.” Not news. “Older woman marries much younger man.” News. Perhaps that’s why Joe Godfrey chose to hone in on the subject in his new play, Romance Language (not to be confused with Peter Parnell’s well-known play of the same title), directed by Carl Andress at Ars Nova (where it’s a rental, not an Ars Nova production).
Of course, such relationships are no longer quite so unusual or gossip-worthy, with a celebrity news cycle that keeps informing us of relationships between older women and younger men—like Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher (15-year difference) or Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon (11-year difference). While these pairings often end in splitsville they, nevertheless, reflect and influence relationships in society at large. (An exception is the marriage of Celeste Holm to Frank Basile, which had a 46-year-difference.)
Love affairs and marriages between older men and much younger women barely raise an eyebrow anymore, as you can see by how little the mainstream press is making of the 24-year difference between a certain business tycoon running for president and his Slovenian wife. Relationships between women who are five to 10 years older than their male partners are common enough to pass without comment, but I suspect there’d be a media field day if a female candidate were in even a semblance of a Harold and Maude relationship.
Romance Language (originally produced in 2014 at the Seven Angels Theatre, Waterbury, CT, in 2014), which runs around 70 minutes, is a tightly constructed, mildly entertaining, 11-scene, throwback dramedy, in which we meet Kay Morgan (Audrey Heffernan Meyer), an attractive, wealthy, middle-aged divorcée/widow, described by Mr. Godfrey as 55-60, who has too much time on her hands. Taking the advice of her high-powered, corporate attorney daughter, Penny (Mairin Lee), to occupy herself productively, she begins taking private Italian lessons at her upscale East Side apartment from the handsome, charming, 35-40-year-old Fiore Benedetto (Jared Zirilli).
Within three weeks she falls in love with Fiore and plans to marry him, but—as would be the case in any typical family—this emotional lunacy seriously disturbs Penny (a nickname for Margarita), who suspects the financially strapped Fiore of being little more than a gigolo seeking to cash in by marrying a rich matron. Soon enough, she’s had her staff uncover potentially unsavory information about the guy, whose green card is about to expire, and the sparks begin to fly. Fiore, fighting back, and resorting to claims about his “honor,” alleges that the still single, 32-year-old Penny, is both jealous of her mother, and, because of her obsessive love for her late father (whose cancer Penny even suggests could have been caused by Kay’s treatment of him) is unwilling to see her mother find happiness with another man. And then there’s the matter of Kay’s Chinese jade egg, about which not another word.
Since Kay and Fiore’s love for opera plays a significant role in their relationship (she takes him to La Bohéme, which he considers the most romantic of operas), the interplay among the characters ascends from what begins as a light domestic comedy into operatic breast beating as emotions get heated; for all the play’s superficially realistic touches, however, very little registers as real or, for that matter, original. It’s the kind of material that would probably find an audience on the Lifetime network, one of whose made-for-cable movies was parodied on the “Family Guy” series as Men are Terrible and Will Hurt You Because This Is Lifetime.
The flexible space at Ars Nova is arranged proscenium style (with the first four audience rows on the unraked floor, making for serious sightline problems). Paul Tate dePoo III has managed to squeeze onto the tiny stage the essence of a nicely appointed, beige-tinted, living room, with two upstage enclosures, one for an entranceway from outside, and one for the kitchen. Gregory Dale has fashioned stylish clothing for the threesome (including the supposedly impoverished Fiore), who must change frequently over the course of the 11 scenes. Grant Yeager’s lighting does what’s necessary, and Bart Fasbender’s sound design includes lots of Italian music. Carl Andress’s direction often seems to resort to movement more from a need to provide visual interest in the confined quarters than because of strong motivation. Oddly, at one point he has a character leave through the kitchen up left but reappear from the entranceway up right.
Ms. Heffernan Meyers’s Kay is pert, cheerful, and spirited; although her voice sounds strained when her feelings get worked up, she’s appropriately cast as a well-preserved woman of means. Still, her character would be more at home in a TV sitcom. The script makes Lee’s Peggy so angry and impolitic, despite her being a successful lawyer, that she goes on the attack within minutes of meeting her mother’s boyfriend, making it hard for us to fully accept her as anything but a playwright’s construct. Mr. Zirilli, who sports a pompadour resembling Hokusai’s wave, is generally acceptable but is defeated by the unenvious task of maintaining an Italian accent throughout.
Mr. Godfrey has said his play was inspired by a production of The Heiress, based on Henry James’s Washington Square, another story about someone who believes a family member’s suitor has ulterior motives. Would that the level of his achievement had been equal to that of his inspiration.
Ars Nova 511 West Fifty-Fourth Street, NYC
Through November 8