Break out the champagne, folks: The theater season is brand new, but its nadir may already be behind us. This would be “First Love,” Charles L. Mee’s meandering disquisition on the joys and pains of romance, performed with understandable uncertainty but considerable bravado by Mabou Mines veterans Frederick Neumann and Ruth Malaczech.
As the play opens, Malaczech’s Edith is prodding awake Neumann’s Harold. Harold is taking up the whole of a park bench that Edith wants to share. (The names come from the program: The characters aren’t in fact written with the kind of specificity that they suggest.)
Both performers are on the far side of middle age, but Mee is hardly the playwright to offer the sentimental late-life romance that such a setup would suggest. He’s a self-consciously brainy type who likes to temper his philosophizing with more than a touch of pop whimsy. “First Love” is part of a trilogy that also includes “Big Love,” his loopy adaptation of Euripides’ “The Suppliant Women,” which comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall.
Much like the Euripides adaptation, “First Love” mixes an inquiry into the nature of love and sex with playful examinations of its representation in pop culture. The play’s third performer is Jennifer Hall, an ingenue type who briefly plays a testy waitress, does a winking, kitschy dance number and delivers a swoony rendition of the Johnny Mercer standard “Dream.” Malaczech and Neumann have their own musical interlude, too, featuring a duet on “September Song” and what I confidently predict will be the worst performance of Mercer’s “Something’s Gotta Give” I shall ever hear.
But these are diversions from the central focus on the tangled relationship between Harold and Edith — if writing of such a peculiarly Jello-like consistency can be said to have a focus. After sharing vague recollections of lefty yesteryears and prior relationships, the couple repair to Edith’s home, where the instant romance hits some speed bumps. An attempt to clear space on the couch quickly opens out into larger emotional territory: “The trouble is: You wouldn’t welcome my children into our lives,” Harold gripes, apropos of nothing, while attempting to fix a toaster.
The play’s opacity — the characters have no psychological consistency and the sequence of events is devoid of emotional logic — renders its occasional glints of insight inconsequential. There are some reflective passages that could be touching if delivered by a character with at least a nodding relationship to reality, as when Edith examines the hurdles she’s faced on the road to love (“It took me so long to be able to love another person … such a long time to grow up … get rid of all my self-involvement … all my worrying whether or not I measured up.”).
But just when you think the characters are going to gain some real emotional texture, the dialogue, written on the page as blank verse, peters out into willful inanity and non sequiturs — a Cosmo quiz, for example. At one appalling moment it subsides entirely for a scene of simulated sex that’s about as erotically stimulating as, say, the footage of bovine funeral pyres featured in news coverage about foot-and-mouth disease. (Don’t accuse me of cruelty: That charge should be leveled at Mee and his daughter Erin, the play’s director, who require their less-than-lithe actors to frolic half-nude. The scary half.)
Much of the dialogue comprises odd anecdotes about the unruly nature of passion coupled with the playwright’s philosophical observations about male-female conflict, randomly parceled out between the two characters. These often skirt banality (“Sometimes even difficult experiences, bad things, even tragedies that you share deepen your love for one another”) and sound particularly prosaic in the denuded dramatic context of the play.
The actors perform with valiant energy and some bold comic charm, clambering doggedly around Klara Zieglerova’s whimsical set, which features a sort of Astroturf-lined shoe box suspended over sand dunes. But their characters’ essential function as agents of Mee’s vague musings on the arbitrary forces of love doesn’t leave them much to work with, and the blunt direction of Mee fille doesn’t help.
The randomness of romantic attraction is a theme returned to more than once, but the play itself has an exasperatingly scattershot quality. Love and attraction may indeed be arbitrary, but art cannot be.