The romance novel is alive and heaving amid torrid declarations of love and expressions of passion in Joan Vail Thorne’s lively bit of dramatic poppycock, “The Things You Least Expect.” This engaging, if mainly preposterous, play is having its world premiere following its workshop development (part of last season’s Next Stage Festival) at the George Street Playhouse. Notwithstanding its far-fetched contrivances and untidy convolutions, this excursion into a May/December romance embraces what some might call an older woman’s autumnal fantasy. Its older women performers, Mary Beth Peil and Pamela Payton-Wright, offer performances that certainly measure up to the highest level of soap opera reality.
Given that 60-something Clare (Mary Beth Peil) is dressed in black and sits doing needlepoint in a room that adjoins the one in which her husband lies stiff in his coffin, one might think she is grieving. Not so. She is actually quite pleased with the way things turned out as she responds to her older sister Myra’s (Pamela Payton-Wright) awareness of her smiles with “I’m feeling just a bit giddy.” Why on earth should Claire be so elated? The possibility that the handsome, 20-something attendant watching over the coffin might have something to do with Clare’s uninhibited expression of joy troubles Myra, who begins to suspect a little hanky panky.
Apparently Clare’s husband had arranged, without Clare’s knowledge, for Sam (Curtis Mark Williams), who claims to be a chaplain intern, to be a friend to his wife during her vigils in the hospital. His paid assignment was to continue after his death (as he, Sam, describes it) “the escort of the deceased into the next world.” Sam’s job, it seems, involves more than sitting alone with the coffin. It is Clare, stunning and vital beauty that she is, who has gotten the full escort service treatment and fallen hopelessly in love with Sam. Needless to say, Myra is shocked by Clare’s “ridiculous behavior” and Clare’s admission of her impetuous affair.
Myra becomes suspicious of Sam’s motives regarding her sister, the ever vulnerable rich widow. Are we surprised when Clare decides to go off to Italy, that Sam follows her there, unbeknownst to either Myra or Clare’s 20-something daughter, Caroline (Jessica Dickey)? Are we surprised that in Act II we watch Clare and Sam cooing in Rome, Venice, and Florence, walking hand in hand through an art gallery, and revealing their intimacy? With the obligatory display of Sam’s abs, there comes the revelation that he actually might be in love with Clare.
When Clare has second thoughts about her relationship with Sam she takes up painting with a teacher who ends up stealing from her. When Sam gets the brush-off, he heads back to a suddenly enamored Myra and a surprisingly smitten Caroline with whom he begins an affair. He keeps his episode with Clare a secret, as Myra and Caroline continue to receive her E-mails from abroad. “E-mails are for people who can’t face each other on the telephone,” says Myra, a spinster who is suddenly looking for ways to spend her money. Did someone say something about Sam and college? Will Myra make a rash decision before Clare returns home? And will Caroline and Myra find out about Sam and Clare? And will Sam take them to the cleaners?
Peil, whose Broadway credits include Anna in the revival of “The King and I” and the revival of “Nine,” carries with her the burden of proof that her character would have no qualms about having an affair with a much younger man, which she proceeds to do with an effervescent sensuality. Wright, who just recently gave a wonderful performance in A.R. Gurney’s “Indian Blood” Off-Broadway, is amusing as the brittle, protective sister. Dickey is fine as the prodigal daughter who returns from her sojourn in India ready for a fling. Williams, with a number of New York credits including “Reckless,” “House and Garden,” and “Y2K,” rises to the challenge of being affable as the opportunistic Sam.
Thorne, best known as a stage director and author of the play, “The Exact Center of the Universe,” may be shamelessly indulging herself while also gratuitously appealing to an audience of a certain age. That said: We’ve seen worse and better. Director David Saint embraces the twaddle with an apparent affection for it, and set designer Michael Anania frames it in a two-level set with a turntable that effectively becomes various sitting and waiting rooms.
Of course, Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting casts a romantic glow on the proceedings. With dialogue like “The city shimmers with mutability,” and “remember the rapture,” and incidents like a mild stroke and a pregnancy, “The Things You Last Expect” expects little more than your indulgence and your awareness of its theme, that a betrayal may beget an epiphany.
"The Things You Least Expect,” through Sunday, October 29, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.