In many plays and films, an older woman who desires a younger man — charmingly referred to these days as a “cougar” — gets punished. Mrs. Robinson, for instance, gets abandoned. The title character in Richard Nelson’s “Madame Melville” dies of cancer. But in Randall David Cook’s “Fate’s Imagination,” Lilah, the fiftyish heroine, reaps rare and satisfying rewards: She not only finds love, she also has her sexuality taken seriously.
Though burdened by a few too many quirks — she’s never used email, she decorates with photos of people she doesn’t know — Lilah (Elizabeth Norment) is compelling. Cook authentically blends her sexual confidence with a fear of being alone, so when she swaggers up to young journalist Brock (Jed Orlemann) outside his office building, her seduction reveals flashes of desperation.
Norment’s performance layers these impulses with a dawning sense of joy, as Lilah gets attached to Brock after he keeps coming to visit her. Flickering between conflicting feelings, the thesp conveys an endearing confusion.
Orlemann gives strong support as he evolves from an arrogant stud looking for a wild night into a lover surprised by his own needs.
Writing, performances and Hayley Finn’s direction crescendo when Lilah and Brock first submit to their attraction. There’s crackling chemistry as the pair lean close on a sofa, delivering eloquent speeches about the fears they are trying to overcome, carefully blocked by the director so they never quite touch.
Too bad the play isn’t really about their relationship. Wrapped around these simples moments is a convoluted plot about Brock’s mother Susan (Donna Mitchell), whose attempt to be the first female president is threatened by her own sexual history with Lilah. Meanwhile, Brock protests his mother’s vote to send America to war by enlisting in the Army.
Though Mitchell gives an enjoyably acidic turn, her character and everything surrounding it reek of creatives who want to “say something.”
By working so hard to be thoughtful, the production becomes confusing and ineffectual. For instance, the lovers are interrupted by an ominous knock on Lilah’s door. We know it’s an important visitor because the knocking is underscored by a blast of fast music. But when Brock answers, the play swerves to another scene. We don’t discover who came acalling until 10 minutes later, and, while that may be structurally inventive, it destroys tension.
Other bits of jetsam include Brock writing on his blog and several scenes of Susan addressing invisible supporters with campaign promises. These feel like cynical attempts to be topical, as though every hip play needs references to the Web and the current political climate.
Similarly, the names of scenes are projected on the back wall of Lilah’s living room, which plays like a meaningless attempt to seem avant-garde. Upping the pretension, Cook’s writing can turn awkwardly purple, forcing actors to say things like “interminable streams of banality surrounding us in giant, invisible, but oh-so-lethal waves.”
The creatives are obviously intelligent artists, but they seem hell bent on proving it. Ironically, “Fate’s Imagination” only says something memorable when they lay off the weightiness.