The Mystery of Love

Aldo and Huey are friends. Huey is divorced, and Aldo -- who never gained his father's affection and is unable to sever the link with his overpowering mother -- is unmarried. Huey has been behaving oddly since the divorce, wearing poetic, frill-sleeved shirts and unflatteringly tight black pants, mooning around and composing poetry. The poem he reads to Aldo early in the OpenStage production of John Patrick Shanley's Italian American Reconciliation is an addled and hilarious promise of verbal pleasures to come: Shanley has an expressive humor all his own, one that balances wistful romanticism against ironic wit.

Huey's ex-wife, Janice, is a termagant who made his life miserable and cooked him hideously burned meals. She killed his dog with a zip gun and threatened to do the same to him. But Huey is no shrew-tamer. Through most of the play, he's drifting and unmanned, and even though he's now dating a loving waitress named Teresa, he feels that he must win Janice back if he's ever to regain his power -- a plan that horrifies Aldo.

In this gentle romantic comedy, not everything is clear and spelled out. There's a questioning, repetitive quality to some of the dialogue, as if Shanley -- a prolific playwright who's the author of both the wistful Moonstruck and an electrifying take on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict called Dirty Story -- has been exploring issues between couples and doesn't quite trust his own conclusions. But on the whole, the play is funny and grounded, and it stirs up deeper currents as Aldo begins to understand his own misogyny and Huey ponders the meaning of manhood.

OpenStage's production is well cast by director Devora Millman. Kurt Brighton is a slick, convincing Aldo, allowing us only a few glimpses of inner uncertainty. Matthew G. Smith's appealing sad sack of a Huey is a bit too droopy now and then, but he flares into passionate life when he woos Janice. Both he and Irene Gordon, who plays a smooth Aunt May, sometimes seem less than fully immersed in their roles, however. Tamara Todres gives a sweetly understated performance as Teresa. There's a charming scene in the diner as she fills salt shakers, tossing a little spilled salt over her left shoulder for every shaker, then confides her fears about Huey to Aunt May.

But the play's most riveting moments come during Shanley's twisted version of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet -- with a twist on Cyrano de Bergerac as well. It doesn't hurt that this is Janice's big scene, and Sydney Parks is absolutely magnificent in the role. Cyrano-like, Aldo has agreed to help Huey in his courtship of Janice: He will go to her house and soften her up before Huey appears. Except that he has his own secret agenda. Because he believes a reconciliation would be disastrous, he plans to prevent it by seducing Janice himself. He sends an advance bunch of roses. She howls and tosses them out of the window. He climbs over the fence to her garden, clattering among the garbage cans, and finally she appears on the balcony. They rage at each other, reminisce about their childhoods, even enjoy brief seconds of understanding. You begin to hope they'll become a couple, thus freeing Huey to love Teresa and bringing in the requisite happy ending.

But this isn't Hollywood, and Shanley knows life is untidy. If his ending feels fuzzy -- despite Aunt May's rather preachy words to Aldo about love -- we have to forgive him. Because how many of us have ever figured out our first loves? Who were those people? And how many of us have changed in some essential way for the sake of romance? Do we really expect indecisive men to become decisive, commitment-phobes to lose their phobias, and vicious women to sweeten into cuddly darlings because the moon is bright? And finally, aren't most of our love affairs -- even those involving decades of marriage -- ultimately as inconclusive as they are unfathomable?


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