June Havoc survived Mama Rose, she’ll survive “The Old Lady’s Guide to Survival.” Mayo Simon’s two-hander, a sort of “The Sunshine Girls” or “The Old Couple,” hovers just above mediocrity throughout its long two hours. But Havoc, trouper to the last, brings an enthusiastic gush of warmth and spirit to the playwright’s obvious mechanics.
Havoc, the original Dainty June and model for the “Gypsy” tyke, brings every last bit of long-gathered showmanship to her role as Netty, a fiercely independent octogenarian faced with the indignity of incipient blindness. Out of necessity, Netty develops an unlikely friendship with neighbor Shprintzy (Shirl Bernheim), whose needs stem from increasing befuddlement.
The conceit here is as blatant as can be: Toss together two desperate characters with clashing personalities and watch them build a friendship. Netty is a vaguely patrician type who loves opera and order in equal measure, while Shprintzy is a middle-class yenta who wears garish pantsuits, pronounces “thirsty” as “thoisty” and provides the play’s dose of old-age cuteness.
Audience won’t need 20-20 eyesight to see where these old ladies are headed. Together, as Simon has Shprintzy none-too-subtly put it, the two women “make a whole person.”
Though Simon’s writing rarely rises above that level of obviousness, the play is not entirely without appeal. Havoc throws herself wholeheartedly into the endeavor, finding poignance in even the most hackneyed situations. Since the play is told from Netty’s point of view, the actress delivers lengthy monologues directly to the audience, or, for reasons never explained, into a tape recorder. With the lilting, ingenuous tone of a librarian reading aloud to schoolchildren, Havoc chances accusations of giving an actressy performance. No matter — she’s responsible for the production’s few charms.
Bernheim seems no less an actress, but is given the far skimpier role. The character’s lack of depth or complexity — who was Shprintzy before senility took hold? — renders the inevitable hugs surprisingly weightless.
On Douglas W. Schmidt’s spare, attractive condo set, Alan Mandell’s direction comes off as straightforward as it was surely intended. The director just can’t do much with the play’s mechanical nature or Netty’s addresses to the audience. Fortunately, Havoc can.