Considering such recent accomplishments as director of the revivals of “Gypsy” and “West Side Story,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that 92-year-old playwright/director Arthur Laurents has written another new play, “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” and that he has also elected to direct. It isn’t at all unexpected that the still vital and vigorous Laurents would eventually turn his attention in his dotage to a play about love, loss, and how one copes with it.
In “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” Sara (Alison Fraser) believes that she has found a positive way to deal with the death of her husband, Paulo, and move forward with her life. Having been happily married to Paulo, a landscaper, for 27 years, Sara has convinced herself that Paulo has begun talking to her a month after his death and encouraged her to return to her profession as a singer.
The play begins in a New York cabaret as Sara sings “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” Fraser, a two time Tony nominee (“The Secret Garden,” “Romance/Romance”) and a frequent guest star at George Street Playhouse, delivers it in an emotionally fragmented way, presumably as an indication of who Sara is and what she is going through. It’s a bit unsettling, but as we see as the play fitfully progresses that Sara is both haunted and hopeful.
Although Sara sees her return to singing as a part of her healing process, she remains an outsider and semi-estranged from Paulo’s family, who have taken over the management of Paulo’s landscaping business. Paulo’s grieving mother, Marion (Shirley Knight), a psychiatrist, wants little or nothing to do with Sara and finds solace at home painting pictures. She doesn’t seem to display much love for her husband, Richard (John Carter) who does the bookkeeping, and even less for their unmarried adult daughter, Michelle (Leslie Lyles), who runs the family business with a constant chip on her shoulder.
A painting of blue horses that Marion intended to give as a birthday gift to Paulo has been taken to Dougal (Jim Bracchitta), a local framer. When Dougal, who coincidentally has been a long-time fan of Sara’s, learns that Sara has returned to singing, he goes to hear her and maneuvers a meeting outside the stage door. Although the gregarious and ingratiating Dougal is eager to encourage a relationship, Sara is resistant to his charms and adamant about not being able to love anyone in the way she loved Paulo.
What Sara presumably wants most, besides from the opportunity for occasional sex with Dougal, is to become friends in their mutual loss with her mother-in-law. “He wanted us to like each other,” Sara tells Marion. This is apparently not possible for Marion. Jealous of the love between her son and Sara, she prefers to wallow in open hostility.
As Marion, Knight (a multi-award winning actress) finds as much nuance as possible in a role that is grounded in rigidity and consigned for the most part to being morose and ill-tempered. The confrontational scenes between Sara and Marion are notable for their futility and generally tend to languish in dreary repetitive discourse. As the unloved lesbian sibling daughter, Michelle, Lyles makes the most of what little has been given her in the way of character complexity by being abrasive and expressing her resentment and disdain to each and all whenever possible.
It is easy to say that Dougal is the only really life-affirming presence in the play and Bracchitta comes through winningly as the exuberantly undeterred suitor. Perhaps it was not a good idea for Laurents to serve as the director of this mostly dreary relatively uneventful play. Almost devoid of energy and dramatic urgency, “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are” slogs along at a snail’s pace. Although it seems to have been written in the earnest cause of redemption, it also helplessly and hopelessly languishes in melancholia.
The production has been handsomely designed by James Youmans who has transfigured the usually three-quarter-in-the-round theater to a traditional proscenium form. The revolving stage is used to maintain the rapid change of the many short scenes that take place in the cabaret, outside the stage door, in a living room or green-house. Live musical accompaniment is expertly performed by Christopher Howatt (pianist, musical director) and Danny Stone (bass).
Acknowledged as a resident playwright at George Street Playhouse, Laurents has had the good fortune to see his most recent plays — “Claudia Lazlo,” “The Vibrator,” “Attacks on the Heart,” “2 Lives,” “New Year’s Eve” — have their world premieres here.
"Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are," through Sunday, November 1, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $31.50-$71.50. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org