There are moments of authenticity in “Lil’s 90th,” but this story of the vulnerable elderly is all too predictable. Flickers of realness are no substitute for dramatic skills. The Long Wharf world-premiere production has the pull of two veteran actors — Lois Smith and David Margulies — but script and direction disappoint in Darci Picoult’s shallow, murky tale, which has dim prospects for transfer.
Lil (Smith) and Charlie (Margulies) seem like a cute older couple at first, cuddling and sharing pudding. Their spirits are buoyant as Lil makes plans to throw herself a 90th birthday party at a club where she will fulfill her dream of performing a singing act. But things go south when Charlie gets suckered by a phone scam, jeopardizing their life savings — not to mention the party.
Charlie’s delusional activities are hidden for some time from the celebration-focused Lil, their stressed daughter Stephanie (Kristine Nielsen), grandson Tommy (Nick Blaemire) and his musician girlfriend Deirdre (Lucy Walters). But when the scam is finally discovered, it unravels them all, particularly Charlie, whose early signs of dementia have been overlooked by a family living in denial.
This is familiar melodramatic turf for many families, no doubt, and not without possibilities for the stage. But Picoult’s characters are vague, confusing and inconsistent, and Jo Bonney’s staging does little to bring focus and clarity to them, or to the story and themes.
Who are these people anyway? Smith and Margulies lend inherent likability and naturalism to their roles, but these characters are contradictory messes, which may reflect real life but makes for sloppy drama.
Is Lil a self-indulgent woman or a smart cookie, independent or needy, strong-willed or subservient, a hypercritical mother or a loving wife and parent? The moods bounce back and forth as audience and actress try to figure this woman out. At end of the show, we still don’t know.
At least Margulies’ character has the defense of dementia, but Charlie is equally unformed. The actor can turn on the charm, wooing his wife with aerosol whip cream and his grandson’s girl with his twinkle. But he can also be spoiled, sexist and obstinate.
Nielsen has even less to work with as Stephanie, who comes across early as a well-organized woman. (She’s secretary to a college dean.) But she soon demonstrates one familial insecurity after another as the stakes are raised. The grandson also is thinly drawn, and his girlfriend seems more like a plot device for a single scene and the answer to the production’s need for a ukulele player.
Once the scam is revealed — with Charlie violently clinging to his belief that it’s legitimate — the family’s reaction and behavior become erratic and the narrative increasingly far-fetched. (Has no one here ever heard of social services?)
If depicting the dysfunction of a muddle-headed family in crisis is the play’s aim, it succeeds. But it’s hardly the stuff of satisfying drama.