Review: `The Things You Least Expect’

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.

– Simon Saltzman

The Things You Least Expect," through Sunday, October 29, George

Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717 or

www.GSPonline.org.

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