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.
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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.