nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
June 5, 2011
“He’s Jewish, She’s Black, He’s 50, She’s 20, It’s 1953,” reads the titillating tagline of this new play by Paul Manuel Kane. The program promises an “edgy comedy” about “people who never connect but go on living with great expectations of connecting” but the show fails to deliver on comedy as well as romance, and especially on the manifold conflict inherent in the premise. This is a mostly stodgy affair until the abrupt denouement, which seems to be striving for a tragic emotional crescendo that is so unearned by the writer, director, and actors that it simply feels bewildering.
Sam, played with gruff competence by Ed Kershen, is a lonely 50-year-old store owner who comes to fall in love with his 20-year-old assistant, Natalie, an impoverished aspiring opera singer. Oni Brown gives such an artificial, static performance as Natalie that the chemistry that should form the essence of this drama is utterly missing. At least partially, the fault may lie with the script, as Natalie is so underwritten and has such unclear motivations that it is difficult for me—and possibly for Brown—to get an understanding of who she is. Kane has Sam fall desperately in one-sided love with Natalie with very little clarity provided into the reasons; the character of Natalie is too obscure and Sam initially seems too reticent and practical to justify this sudden flame of desire. Kershen makes the best of this uneven emotional arc but at times his performance veers into overblown sentimentality, which may be mostly the fault of the script’s muddled demands. Director Hillary Spector does very little to address the challenges in the script, seemingly providing little direction to guide the actors or mold this lackluster drama into a more convincing shape.
On a positive note, Josh Iacovelli’s scenic design is lovingly detailed and his lighting work is highly proficient. Also, the other couple of the play, Sam’s cousin Rose, played with a quiet dignity by LeeAnne Hutchison, and her disgruntled husband, Joe, played by Todd Licea, have a much clearer emotional arc and more convincing chemistry. Rose wants a baby, which she can’t naturally conceive, and Joe is war veteran whose injuries prevent him from playing the clarinet as he always wanted. The two live in Sam’s basement apartment and fear that if Sam marries someone, they will lose their home in addition to the dreams they have already lost. Their attempt to find out who Sam has fallen in love with, and the meager dramatic fallout that ensues when they do, forms the main action of the play. Bouncing in and out of the intrigue is Luba, a mahjong addict and longtime customer, who provides the little comedic relief there is to be found in the production. Neva Small’s performance as Luba is at times entertaining but is too often a caricature of a middle-aged New York Jewish woman. Sam’s Romance is meant to be about missing connections, but the most apparent disconnect seems to be between the cast and the material, the creators and convincing storytelling.