Is it possible to act and produce a Southern accent at the same time? The question is raised — but hardly answered — by “Last Dance,” the staggeringly bad new play by Marsha Norman at Manhattan Theater Club. A quartet of actors with respectable credits, including JoBeth Williams, drawl their way through this woozy romantic comedy under the misguidedly earnest hand of director Lynne Meadow. Their variable efforts can’t come close to redeeming the preposterous plot and florid dialogue, which variously suggest Tennessee Williams at low ebb, Eric Rohmer movies spliced with Bette Davis weepers and a slew of daytime soaps. Put that in a blender, puree, and head for the hills.
Williams plays a successful but respectable novelist from Georgia who has repaired to her lovely farmhouse on the coast of France. Charlotte is wistfully determined to relinquish the pleasures and perks of the successful but respectable novelist’s life, which apparently include (who knew?) a much younger lover with a rapacious sexual appetite, bulging biceps and “The Bold and the Beautiful” hair.
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Just for starters, as soon as hunky Cab (Lorenzo Pisoni) steps onstage clad only in his pajama bottoms, this dilemma is not likely to evoke large amounts of sympathy from certain sectors of the audience. Namely a) women and gay men with a susceptibility to gorgeous Italians with washboard stomachs (hands down, please), and b) anyone who has ever gone without a date for more than 15 minutes (hands down, everyone else). But yes, renounce her ardent young admirer Charlotte must. It is time to devote herself to perfecting her craft. “I’m tired of love,” she says grandly. I’m so verklempt!
And so this charitably inclined Southern lady, perhaps having seen “Der Rosenkavalier” one time too many on the way through Paris (unless, of course, it’s entered the repertoire of the Savannah Civic Light Opera), decides to bless and nurture a love affair between Cab and her goddaughter Georgeanne (Heather Goldenhersh).
“I want you to have him,” Charlotte says nobly to the startled young girl. “But he adores you,” Georgeanne replies, wide-eyed with admiration. “Why would anybody who could have you want me?” And yet, generous though “our divine Charlotte” is with hand-me-downs, it’s hard to credit the general rapture she inspires. In addition to Cab’s panting declarations of love, she must fend off another determined suitor, too, the catty older painter Randall DellaMar (David Rasche). Must be all those “finely wrought” novels we keep hearing about.
Anyway, no fool she, Georgeanne is soon making abashed eyes at Cab and swooning at his Adonis-type beauty. Since she’s an aspiring poet — God help us, so is almost everyone in the play — Georgeanne rhapsodizes thus: “He is like something from the natural world.” (Who isn’t, dear?) “Like something growing with abandon on a craggy hillside. Or something straggling to the shore, brave and newborn from a crashing sea.” Truth to tell, Pisoni looks more like something brave and newborn from a Bruce Weber photo, but imagine the foregoing passage delivered in an overripe Southern drawl and you’ll begin to get some inkling of the play’s sensibility.
By the time we have been treated to several stanzas of the characters’ grisly poetry, and have listened to Charlotte endlessly justify her desire to “abandon romance altogether, step out of it like an organza dancing dress I can leave on the floor of my closet,” we’re pretty much ready to sign up for any of the workaday pleasures she pines for, like flower arranging and drinking tea. For that matter, being abandoned on a craggy hillside doesn’t sound so bad, either.
The actors are understandably at sea, although they burble and pant and flutter and emote quite as if they believed it all. Norman’s writing is probably unplayable — pitched as parody it might almost work — and yet Williams is so strikingly terrible in the play’s final passages that it would be churlish to deny her at least some of the credit. She gives every bit of lip-biting commitment to protestations such as, “The time has come to live the way I must, not the way I want to, or have wanted to in the past. I wish I didn’t have to choose, but I do. And I will. I mean to go on … alone.” Such effusions are occasionally accompanied by soft strains of music by Jason Robert Brown, but only Max Steiner could really do them justice.