Quasi-autobiographical with intent and semi-detached with feeling from the real life of prolific, renowned octogenarian playwright Arthur Laurents, "2 Lives" resonates with as much heart-felt sentimentality as it does with smart-ass repartee.
Stand-in for Laurents is Matt Singer (Tom Aldredge), a 76-year-old playwright whose 35-year romantic partnership with Howard Thompson (James Sutorius) is as enviable as it is admirable. A recovering alcoholic when they met, Howard has since made a career of being chief landscape designer of their property in the Hamptons. When he is writing a play, Matt also relies upon Howard to listen and offer his opinions on the dialogue. "2 Lives" is set in the small private park (handsomely designed by James Youmans) that has been Howard’s special project. As Howard is turning 65, Matt has reluctantly agreed to allow his industry-related house guests to cater a celebratory birthday party.
At the same time, Matt is dealing with his disappointment that one of his older plays with a gay theme that had been scheduled for production by the local community theater has suddenly been rejected because of local pressure. However, he does have great expectations that his newest play will be optioned for Broadway by guest-of-honor Leo Kondracki, a successful Hollywood mogul who also dabbles in the theater.
Arriving in time for the celebration is long-time friend Willi Thurman (Joanne Camp), a quasi-semi-lesbian actress, who is accompanied by Nerissa Connor (Dee Hoty), an attractively affected British actress. To say that both of their personalities are overtly theatrical in style is an understatement.
It becomes obvious that Willi is as focused on seducing Nerissa as is Nerissa focused on seducing Leo, whom she hopes will produce her recent London hit, "Antigone," in America on Broadway. Willi, it appears, also has eyes for Scooter Jenkins (Matt Cavenaugh), the young, attractive but nevertheless married, caretaker whose disarmingly flaky wife Maryanne (Jessica Dickey) is the on-site caterer. Amidst these familiar and somewhat synthetic types, whose self-serving agendas are as obvious as they are fitfully amusing, is Eloyse (Helen Gallagher), Howard’s addled Alzheimer-afflicted mother, whose contributions are mainly singing snippets of old songs with fragmented enthusiasm.
As exuberant as is the performing in Act I and as skillfully laced with invective barbs and brittle chatter, not much happens. That is until an unexpected tragedy occurs at the end of the act. It probably
isn’t cricket to disclose whether the charmingly opportunistic Leo is inclined to back out of his agreement with Matt in favor of one with the more alluring Nerissa, or whether Matt feels betrayed by the obviously manipulative Willi, or whether the randy Scooter’s dalliances are mostly in his mind, or whether the preoccupied Maryann will ever have a clue to what is going on.
Perhaps it is exactly the superficiality of these peripheral larger-than-life people that serve to bring into sharper relief the more honestly evolved connection between Matt and Howard, whose lives are seen as emotionally complete, respectfully fulfilled, and irreversibly entwined. The play’s saving grace is that it doesn’t turn maudlin or glum, but becomes a rather hopeful testament to the kind of loving and committed relationship that can withstand turbulence, disappointments, and the disapproval of a community.
David Saint’s nurturing direction is apparent. Theater veteran Aldredge, whom George Street Playhouse audiences enjoyed in Laurent’s one-act play, "The Vibrator," is terrific as the irrevocably changed and irreconcilably saddened playwright. If Sutorious looks a bit young for 65, his performance is, nevertheless, ingratiating. Gallagher, who also graced the GSP stage in "Public Ghosts, Private Stories," gets a lot of comical mileage meandering through Eloyse’s disintegrating mind.
Far be it from me to suggest that Camp stoops to camp, but her gregarious performance as the duplicitous Willi, nevertheless, registers amusingly in the light of Hoty’s more restrained sophistication. Interestingly, Scooter (nicely played by the charismatic Cavenaugh) becomes the play’s most unassumingly interesting character, as he gently tests the boundaries of his affection for Matt in the play’s most sincerely motivated scene.
Laurents, whose lauded stage works include "West Side Story," "Gypsy," "Do I Hear a Waltz," "Hallelujah, Baby!," "Jolson Sings Again," "Claudia Lazlo," and "Attacks of the Heart," may not, like Matt, see his play on Broadway, but wherever else it is performed, audiences will undoubtedly be touched, if not awed.
2 Lives, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $24-$58. 732-246-7717. Through Sunday, November 13.