The boulevard comedy — once a staple of commercial and community theatrical activity, now in semi-eclipse — gets a shot in the arm with Joe DiPietro’s “The Last Romance,” making its West Coast debut in the Old Globe’s arena space. No great shakes as dramaturgy, the golden years love story casts a bewitching spell in the hands of real life partners Marion Ross (“Happy Days”) and Paul Michael, for whom it was written. Remarkably free of cliche, it should enjoy a long life in nonprofit and community venues.
The oldster odd couple conjured up by Tony winner DiPietro (“Memphis”) consists of tastefully tailored matron Carol and working-class Italian-American retiree Ralph, who meet, bond and eventually take each other’s breath away at a Hoboken dog run. Michael is earth to Ross’ water, droll and direct in his approach even as she manages to skitter away. Two decades of intimacy endow the stars with chemistry any helmer would kill for, exploited to the hilt by Richard Seer in his efforts to ensure they remain adorable but never cloying.
Biggest surprise is that unlike most scribes who deal with the elderly, DiPietro indulges in no corny byplay about Medicare, piles, grandchildren or death. Instead, we’re treated to mature give and take between once-married, twice-shy grownups wondering whether to take one last plunge.
The fly in the ointment is Ralph’s sister Rose (Patricia Conolly), written in the overprotective-Italian-relative trope already worn out when Paddy Chayefsky employed it in “Marty” 60 years ago. Conolly overdoes the hand gestures and would do well to take a craftier approach in objecting to Carol’s horning in. But by play’s end, the affectations recede, and she taps into the leads’ mellow mood.
Some of the humor misses the mark, as when Ralph and Rose struggle to recall the acronym “ASPCA,” an unnecessary humiliation.
But DiPietro hits the bull’s eye in making Ralph an opera buff who long ago auditioned for the Met, which enables him to bring in the man’s younger self in the person of the impressively courtly Joshua Jeremiah. Brief, moving arias between scenes connect the art form, the mourned past and the stark present. As Ralph shrugs to Carol, “The thing about opera, see, is all the lovers want to do is be in love. But it ain’t ever that simple. Something always gets in the way.”