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Southern Comforts

Critical brickbats would just roll off the back of this sweet if schematic two-hander about a grumpy old widower (set in his ways) from New Jersey and the saucy Southern widow (hot to trot) who coaxes him into taking a second chance at love.

Gus - Larry Keith Amanda - Penny Fuller

Critical brickbats would just roll off the back of this sweet if schematic two-hander about a grumpy old widower (set in his ways) from New Jersey and the saucy Southern widow (hot to trot) who coaxes him into taking a second chance at love. The content is thin and the pacing glacial until scribe Kathleen Clark finally manages to work up some dramatic conflict in the end scenes. However, “Southern Comforts” should have huge appeal for older auds who loyally shell out for season tickets to see shows about brash kids and middle-aged narcissists. Subscription theater companies, take note.

The elderly aud at a final preview looked positively stunned to see characters their own age holding the stage and giving voice to personal issues that actually matter to their generation. These topics range from having sex and getting married late in life to fending off nosey neighbors and selfish children who disapprove (or are envious) of such activities. The lobby buzz after the show was downright deafening.

As played by Larry Keith, one of the two characters onstage –cranky widower Gus — even looks like a member of the audience demographic. With his portly girth and lived-in face, this consummate stage vet effortlessly projects the weary look and manner of a grouchy old guy close to 80, without family or friends, who’s just going through the motions while living out the remainder of his days.

The guy is such a loner — glued to the ballgame on TV and robotically raking leaves and changing the storm and screen windows in the old Victorian house where he was born — that he can’t wait to get rid of the gorgeous woman who comes to his door to drop off donation envelopes from his church.

This bewitching stranger introduces herself as Amanda Cross, a widow from Tennessee, up north visiting her married daughter. Once she actually gets inside the house, the differences between her and Gus are immediate and glaring.

As played by the enchanting Penny Fuller — slim, honey-voiced and sexually vibrant in the flattering outfits shopped by Joseph G. Aulisi — Amanda is as eager to embrace life as Gus is determined to avoid it. A retired librarian, she likes to travel, socialize, read and discuss books and have adventures. He’s content to stay put in his chair and vote Republican. All these two really have in common is their love of baseball.

The play’s problem is that we get all this from the very first scene. What follows is no more than repetitive confirmation of the obvious, as Amanda patiently breaks down Gus’ resistance to change and seductively draws him back into the world of the living.

Even clocking in at a mere 90 minutes, the play is overwritten and makes its points many times over.

Clark writes a clean line of dialogue and shows great affection for this mismatched pair. Some genuine emotion is generated when Gus finally admits to his feelings for the vivacious Amanda — “You’re sort of like a good cup of coffee. You keep me awake” — and agrees to marry her. Certainly the audience was happily swooning.

But the progress of their courtship, while sweet as all get-out, isn’t the least bit surprising. And despite the tender touch that helmer Judith Ivey extends to the characters, the physical staging feels stiff and mannered.

It isn’t until the very end of the play, when Gus and Amanda discover a serious issue of disagreement — over where they are to be buried, and with whom — that some sense of drama presents itself. And here again, a key directorial decision lets the play down. Whatever her true age, Fuller projects the image of a dynamic and independent woman in her early 60s, much too feisty to settle for this old fogy and far too vital to be thinking of where she wants to be buried.

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Southern Comforts

59E59; 199 seats; $60 top

Production: A Primry Stages presentation of a play in one act by Kathleen Clark. Directed by Judith Ivey.

Creative: Set, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Joseph G. Aulisi; lighting, Brian Nason; original music, Paul Schwartz; sound, T. Richard Fitzgerald; fight direction, B.H. Barry; production stage manager, Misha Siegel-Rivers. Opened Oct. 18, 2006. Reviewed Oct. 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: Gus - Larry Keith Amanda - Penny Fuller

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