George Street Playhouse opens its season with Joan Vail Thorne’s “The Things You Least Expect,” a sprightly family affair well served by two seasoned players. A bright and salty first act finds a merry widow sparring with her tough-talking sibling. Unfortunately, the second half loses its witty edge and grinds to a halt when an aggressive young lothario pursues the globetrotting widow through the stately halls of Italian museums.
The body of her deceased husband is not even cold when sixtysomething Clare (Mary Beth Peil), celebrating her independence after 40 years of marriage, packs her bags for a long-awaited flight to visit the museums of Venice and Florence.
Myra (Pamela Payton-Wright), Clare’s overprotective younger sister, is wary of the widow’s spirited attitude. She’s especially concerned about the presence in Clare’s house of Sam (played with troubling indifference by Curtis Mark Williams), an elusive young hospital intern supposedly there to escort the deceased into his next life. Myra’s anxieties prove justified when Sam follows the widow to Rome and seduces her; a torrid May-December relationship begins. After the inevitable spat, he returns to the States, impregnates Clare’s daughter (Jessica Dickey) and drains Myra’s bank account.
Giving the play an unexpected jolt fit to flavor any television sudser, Myra has a stroke that’s just serious enough to bring Clare home. The inevitable reunion with the erring suitor lacks any of the expected fire or fury. The play lapses into blandness and withers away.
Its saving grace is the finely tuned performances by Peil and Payton-Wright. The former brings a stately grace and purpose, and the latter gives the play its comic edge and bracing bite. However, while Williams has enough boyish charm as first-class cad Sam, he doesn’t invest the character with effective cunning or oily manipulation.
George Street a.d. David Saint’s sure-handed direction controls the action with pace and polish. Michael Anania’s spare two-tiered set serves various locations from sitting rooms to Italian hotels and museums with clean airy distinction, and all subtly lit by Christopher J. Bailey.