Just when you thought that the mature light romantic comedy was gone with the wind and more or less forsaken in the whim of a grittier and unsentimental contemporary theater, Kathleen Clark’s “Southern Comforts” arrives to make it all right again. This is the most amusingly endearing comedy about two people of a certain age since D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game.” But unlike the latter, in which two older very unhappy people rekindle in each other a spark and a reason to go on, “Southern Comforts” considers the unlikely prospects of a relationship between a winsome Southern widow and a contented but stiff-necked self-sufficient Yankee widower.
Award-winning actor Judith Ivey directs with flair and a finesse that keeps Clark’s comedy from either flagging or from losing its ability to keep us involved. Penny Fuller and Larry Keith share the acting honors and display a perfectly skewed synchronicity.
Clark, a New Jersey resident, states in a program note that her play was inspired by her grandmother, who left Tennessee, married, and settled down to raise a family with her husband, a native of Morris County, New Jersey. “I grew up in a pocket of Southern culture in the middle of northern New Jersey.” One didn’t have to read that note to feel the playwright’s joyful and heartfelt tribute as the play proceeds from one delightful scene to the next, nor to fully relish the extent to which she has her two marvelous characters find happiness and a common ground despite their distinct cultural quirks and divides.
Stiff-necked and self-sufficient Gus (Larry Keith) is set in his ways and resigned to stay that way. A retired stone mason, he is living alone in his Victorian house in a small town in rural New Jersey. Having successfully managed to discourage interest from the local available women, especially those within the church he attends with intermittent regularity, Gus putters around his home that is notably spartan in its decor. Amanda (Penny Fuller) has recently come from Tennessee to spend some time with her married daughter and four children. Having noticed Gus at the church service, she loses little time in paying a home visit (“I’m here from the church”), using as an excuse the delivery of tithing envelopes.
A sudden rainstorm with thunder and lighting is the perfect excuse for Amanda to hang around, as Gus proceeds to put up storm windows and as they both seem to enjoy the baseball game on TV. Although Gus is not inclined to small talk or encouraging Amanda’s attention, he offers his wife’s clothes for the church charity drive. But it is Amanda’s winning, appealing small talk that finds Gus opening up a bit and tentatively talking about his memories of war, his semi-estranged son, and his unhappy marriage. When Gus purchases a pair of tickets to a ball game, we get the first glimmer that he is willing to put down his guard.
The play is comprised of five scenes during which time passes and the seasons come and Gus and Amanda go through what might be called peaks and valleys of getting-to-know-you. Don’t think that the fact that she is a Democrat and that he is a Republican (“How could anyone with a conscience be a Republican?”), or that he is reluctant to show her any room but the living room, is going to stop this romance from blossoming. What you might think would be all quite predictable is not as Gus and Amanda expose their well-nurtured idiosyncrasies with emotional honesty and a wonderfully candid wit.
Amanda surprises Gus with her candor when she wants to discuss sex. Will the morning after the night before change the course of their relationship? Laughs are plentiful as they confront the problem of what to do with Amanda’s furniture. But one of the play’s funniest scenes finds Gus attempting to put in a storm window while standing on a ledge that requires a little ingenuity from Amanda. Another scene in which shopping for gravestones becomes a major issue is both hilarious and touching.
Fuller, whose many credits include a Tony-nomination for Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party,” is luminous and gingerly animated and offers a refreshing spin on the proverbial steel magnolia. She also looks terrific in the clothes designed by Joseph Aulisi. Veteran Broadway actor Keith gets his fair share of our empathy and our laughter, as he trades in his armored reserve for a disarming resolve. Thomas Lynch’s living room set deserves accolades for its own cleverly devised transformation. How could anyone with a conscience not be delighted by this wonderful new play, a production of Primary Stages? ***
“Southern Comforts,” through Saturday, November 4, 59E59 Theaters. 212-840-9705 or www.primarystages.com.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.