For its final offering of the current season, Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick is presenting the world premiere of Stephanie Berry’s “The Last Fall.” It introduces two exciting, vibrant characters who battle in a romantic comedy fashion for the entire first act, finding a few laughs plus a pang after intermission and ultimately foundering in its own juices.
We are somewhgere on Riverside Drive in Manhattan and Patrice Davidson’s fine setting clearly establishes the time as late September. The two trees are bare and the ground is covered in multi-colored maple leaves. A pair of park benches face the audience, one of them already missing its back. Street lights bookend the area, but the dominant feature is a yellow New York taxicab, the light on top announcing it is available.
And we meet Neville and Rhea; he is the cab’s driver and, as it turns out, its owner, looking for a final fare at the end of a long day that will take him downtown to his garage. She is a school teacher, apparently one who lives in Harlem, and she wants to go uptown. Her speech is flavored with four-letter words, and it is difficult to shut her up. We will return again and again to this scene and time, but through flashbacks we will drop in on the next 10 years as well.
We gradually realize that much of the play is about communication — that which is said, what is left unsaid, and what should not be said. As Neville warns Rhea: “Be careful about what you think you need to know.” But meanwhile there are memories to be shared. She talks about a Smokey Robinson concert; he remembers growing up in carnival-like Trinidad.
By the end of the first act, we are thoroughly charmed by the two, and we still don’t know whether Neville will head uptown or down. But in the first few sentences of act two, it is clear the mood has changed. The two visit Trinidad and the evening switches from romantic comedy to tragedy. A native seer (reading bones or rocks) suggests an imminent death and Rhea discovers she has terminal cancer. Is the playwright merely stretching his material to enlarge a one-acter into a longer work? Neville doesn’t contact Rhea for a year and the onstage scenes become disjointed, suggesting cutting and pasting. Dialogue switches from straightforward to poetic and seems false.
Don’t blame the cast. Roscoe Orman and Lizann Mitchell struggle valiantly to make the revelations palatable, but the verve of act one is gone and with it much of their characterizations as well. Neither seems comfortable with the change. Rather than battling each other, ach now seems to be battling the fates — hardly romantic nor comic.
Roscoe Orman has appeared in dozens of theater productions and films, but he is perhaps most well-known as the beloved Gordon Robinson on TV’s “Sesame Street.” Lizan Mitchell has performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in regional theaters. Her films include “The Preacher’s Wife,” “Having Our Say,” and “The Human Stain.” McCarter audiences will remember her as Sadie Delaney in its production of “Having Our Say” in September, 2009.
Presumably “The Last Fall’ is still “a work in progress,” but it difficult to see just how it might be improved. Roman comedy is not Greek tragedy and sadly, the play has not yet made up its mind.
“The Last Fall,” Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, May 2. A poignant love story that follows two 50-somethings portrayed by Roscoe Orman, seen in films and television but best known as Gordon from Sesame Street; and Lizan Mitchell, featured in movies and television. Written by Stephanie Berry and directed by Lynda Gravatt. $40 to $65. 732-545-8100 or wwwcrossroadstheatrecompany.org.