With the premiere of “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” George Street a.d. David Saint has named dramatist Arthur Laurents as the theater’s adopted resident playwright after premiering a half-dozen new works on the New Brunswick stage in recent seasons. But the 92-year-old scribe’s latest is a rather laborious postmortem of a recently deceased landscaper, and a life recalled and assessed by his grieving widow, mother and a curiously indifferent sister and father.
Curtain rises on a tremulous performance of “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” by despairing widow Sara (Alison Fraser). The grieving diva has reluctantly returned to the nightclub scene following the death of Paolo, her husband of 27 years; she is quickly comforted by a stage-door suitor with his heart on his sleeve, vigorously played by Jim Bracchitta.
It’s refreshing to see the superb Shirley Knight back on the stage, appearing as Paolo’s mother, a therapist and painter of flowery watercolors and blue horses. The role is a mere character sketch, yet Knight manages to reveal nuance and substance, and is particularly touching in a brief emotional breakdown.
Add to the mourners Paolo’s defiant gay sister, Michelle, an underwritten role given earnest handling by Leslie Lyles. Also in the mix is John Carter as Paolo’s dad, nursing a cautionary heart condition. Fraser offers a fragile and unsettling performance as the widowed chanteuse, balancing grief with sudden passion for her undeterred and unlikely aspiring boyfriend.
The prolific Laurents has given his play a crisp staging, cramming the 90-minute wake with enough heartbreak and ardor to fill a grand opera. James Youmans’ slickly handsome set rolls from living room to greenhouse to barren cabaret stage with functional ease.