The muted light filtering through the windows onto the faded surfaces of Ralph Funicello’s timeworn living room set suggests, even before it begins, that “Saturn Returns” will be unfurling some melancholy memories. An against-the-grain undertaking for emerging writer Noah Haidle, whose previous New York productions have wrapped their dark themes in layers of whimsy, this is an intimate reflection on grief and loneliness that keeps its sentimentality in check via prickly character shadings. But despite Nicholas Martin’s graceful staging, the play is too contrived to be fully affecting.
While it’s not directly referenced, a program note explains Haidle’s simple astrological frame: The planet Saturn completes its orbit three times in most human lives, returning to its position at the time of a person’s birth at roughly thirty-year intervals, and ushering in three crucial turning points in that person’s life.
Having an older character observe his younger self can be a hoary device. But Haidle and Martin shuffle scenes depicting Michigan doctor Gustin at ages 28, 58 and 88 with remarkable ease for such a schematic structure. The fluid time transitions are helped by Mark Bennett’s mood-shifting music, and by the encompassing tenderness of John McMartin’s performance as the character’s senior incarnation.
In the opening exchange, the 88-year-old retired radiologist is getting a routine medical check from assisted-living care-giver Suzanne (Rosie Benton, who plays all three female roles). He’s healthy enough not to require home visits but it soon becomes apparent that beneath his salty banter, Gustin is lonely. Suzanne is the latest in a series of calls to plumbers, computer technicians, au pairs and even escorts, the sole objective of which was finding someone to scramble Gustin’s eggs and keep him company.
That the notion of paying someone for companionship should seem completely normal to him is the first hint personal relationships might not be the old geezer’s forte.
Drifting back and forth from 2008, 1978 and 1948, the play pieces together the final days spent by middle-aged Gustin (James Rebhorn) with his daughter Zephyr, and the night on which she was conceived after a date at the symphony with his late wife Loretta, when he was a young medical school graduate (Robert Eli). It’s revealed at the outset that Gustin lost both women, but the full circumstances of thoses losses and the lingering sorrow left in their place only gradually become clear.
What stops Haidle’s play from being a tearkjerker are the contradictions between the characters’ sweetness and selfishness. At all three ages, Gustin has his scratchy argumentative side, while Loretta, Zephyr and even Suzanne show flashes of offputting emotional neediness. But it’s unclear if this was the playwright’s intention.
Having forcibly shaped their early romance as a model of fairy-tale perfection — right down to narrating their date in rapturous third person — Loretta cements in Gustin an impossible ideal of love that can never be matched. His history of keeping women at arm’s length emerges, as does his suffocating attempt to use Zephyr’s love to fill the gap. And when he reaches out to Suzanne as a surrogate daughter, the bid for affection feels as manipulative as it is desperate.
It’s the pain and helplessness in McMartin and Rebhorn’s gentle performances, masked by a false front of gruff charm, that allows Gustin to keep hold of the audience’s sympathies even through his most maddening behavior. And it’s those qualities that give the play some poignancy, even when the characters’ choices don’t ring true. This is particularly a weakness with Zephyr and Suzanne, while Loretta just seems mildly unbalanced. Nonetheless, Benton does what she can with the frustrating roles, and it makes sense to connect them via the same actress.
Haidle pushes too hard for humor, resulting in a certain fussiness to the dialogue. But while its emotional impact is too subdued to be satisfying, this is a more soulful effort than the playwright’s grating “Mr. Marmalade.” With its repeated talk of birds migrating, winter arriving and night falling, the play captures the cycle of sadness, memory and unbreakable relationship patterns with quiet reverberations — even if it lacks the depth of insight to shed fresh light on its existential issues.