Two Lives

P<B>erfect love makes for a wonderful life, but it doesn't do much for the theater. There's just such a romance at the center of "Two Lives," a new play by Arthur Laurents preeming at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse.

With:
Matt Singer - Tom Aldredge Howard Thompson - James Sutorius Eloyse Thompson - Helen Gallagher Maryanne Jenkins - Jessica Dickey Scooter Jenkins - Matt Cavenaugh Willi Thurman - Joanne Camp Leo Kondracki - Jim Bracchitta Nerissa Connor - Dee Hoty

Perfect love makes for a wonderful life, but it doesn’t do much for the theater. There’s just such a romance at the center of “Two Lives,” a new play by Arthur Laurents (“Gypsy,” “West Side Story”) preeming at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse. The show ostensibly chronicles the final days of a 45-year gay relationship, but the plot’s just an excuse to let characters wax forever about their tender, tender hearts.

Laurents, who based the script on his longtime relationship, fills the dialogue with touching turns of phrase, but he never shapes them into consequential scenes. He’s too busy describing love to show it in action, and he won’t let anything threaten the Eden he’s created for his lovers.

That notion of paradise springs from James Youmans’ set, a verdant park we learn was built by Howard (James Sutorius) for his playwright lover Matt (Tom Aldredge). Everything happens before a lush backdrop, whose milky scrim gives trees and garden paths the hazy shimmer of a dream.

This makes a sweet metaphor for Howard and Matt’s ever-blooming affection, but the park and the couple it represents are just too perfect. Their indestructibility drains the urgency from every potential conflict. Therefore, Howard’s mother, Eloyse (Helen Gallagher), might have been cold to her child and might now be losing her mind, but if the old lady’s upset, she need only totter to the Japanese maples for a dose of instant calm.

Meanwhile, the local government refuses to mount one of Matt’s plays because it’s too gay, but the threat of that virulent homophobia gets brushed aside with a quick hug from Howard and some platitudes about survival. That apparently works, because the problem never resurfaces.

By letting their relationship obliterate all obstacles, Laurents gives himself no dramaturgical choice but to kill either Howard or Matt. There are no stakes in the play until one of them dies, so the first act feels like an endless wait for the inevitable.

When the grief finally comes, it’s perfunctory, never arising naturally from the story. We see the standard scene where a friend tells the widower to get on with his life, yet it improbably occurs the morning after the death. There’s also the trope in which the dead man talks to his lover’s ghost, but the exchange reveals nothing about the characters. These scenes are hollow replicas of moments that have worked for other writers.

David Saint’s soporific direction underscores the paint-by-numbers quality. Clocks could be set by how often the actors move center stage to deliver big speeches, letting us know when something Really Matters.

For those who miss the visual clues, there’s Robert Waldman’s mawkish music, dripping with strings that would better suit “One Life to Live.”

Rising above the soap opera material, at least, are a few gifted actors. Aldredge delivers a nicely understated turn, and Joanne Camp spins comic gold from her thin role as a faded, possibly lesbian actress. In contrast to her supple work, the younger thesps — including Matt Cavenaugh as the park’s caretaker and Jim Bracchitta as a shifty Broadway producer — lurch like stiff-limbed robots just learning to speak.

It’s too bad such shoddy craft keeps killing a show that believes in the immortality of love.

Two Lives

George Street Playhouse; 379 seats; $58 top

Production: A George Street Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by Arthur Laurents. Directed by David Saint.

Creative: Sets, James Youmans; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, David Lander; music, Robert Waldman; production stage managers, Thomas Clewell, C. Renee Alexander. Opened, reviewed Oct. 21, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: Matt Singer - Tom Aldredge Howard Thompson - James Sutorius Eloyse Thompson - Helen Gallagher Maryanne Jenkins - Jessica Dickey Scooter Jenkins - Matt Cavenaugh Willi Thurman - Joanne Camp Leo Kondracki - Jim Bracchitta Nerissa Connor - Dee Hoty

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