The first thing you see is the Manhattan skyline -- but it's viewed from across the river, in Hoboken, New Jersey: a symbol, perhaps, of thwarted aspirations. An elderly man, Ralph Bellini, is sitting on a bench in a dog park. Carol Reynolds, an elderly woman, enters; she's giving her Chihuahua some exercise. Ralph is a working stiff who once dreamed of being an opera singer and in fact came very close to realizing his ambition. An audition for the Met impressed the judges, but -- as Ralph later learned -- his family never told him about the callback he received. Carol is a onetime executive secretary who, somewhat improbably, lives in luxury in a Manhattan apartment building. Of course, Ralph doesn't know any of this when he sets out to tease, cajole, impress and charm her.
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The show's title is The Last Romance, so you know what's to come. But the romance is complicated by the fact that Ralph lives with his lonely, bitter sister, Rose; he is controlled by her clock and gets summoned home nightly by her announcement of the menu she's prepared for the two of them -- on this particular night, veal scallopini. Rose's husband left her for another woman 22 years earlier, and she never got over it or granted him a divorce. There's a major complication in Carol's life, too, but this is only revealed late in the action.
Joe DiPietro's play has a fair amount of charm. All three characters are interesting: Ralph, self-deprecating but audacious, still holding onto lost dreams and insisting defiantly that life isn't over for him; buttoned-down, repressed Carol, a little haughty, but ultimately -- as we knew all along she would be -- susceptible; and Rose, who has a prickly vulnerability that eventually wins the audience over. These roles are well-acted by John S. Green as Ralph, Christy Brandt as Carol and Anne F. Butler, whose awkward Rose provides a large share of the evening's laughs.
There's also a certain amount of appeal to the idea of a sunset romance, whose participants bring to it -- despite engrained habits of mind and body -- a still-strong flame and an unquenchable desire for connection and love. Add a small dog that will eventually appear in the flesh to appropriate "aaahhhs" from the audience, and a handsome young singer who represents Ralph's lost youth and brings the mighty power of arias from Verdi's Falstaff and Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci to bolster and bless Ralph and Carol's coupling -- an effective performance by Sean Thompson -- and you've got a hit. But a limited hit.
At one point, contemplating the dailiness of his own life, Ralph extols the sheer largeness of opera: "Everything in life is so small -- you get up, you have your day, you go to bed -- small! But everything in opera -- someone walks across the stage -- they sing an aria! Someone opens a door -- another aria! Big emotions, big people, big, big, big!"
"Life should be like that," Carol responds instantly.
In a way, this exhilarating speech only underlines the fact that The Last Romance is a small play. Ralph and Carol are pleasant company, but you're not going to remember them after you leave the theater. The script is gentle-hearted and sometimes witty, but there are also some pretty flat jokes. Carol's dog is named Peaches, and Ralph makes a point of referring to her by the names of other fruits: "Pineapple," he calls, or "Strawberry." And why are opera singers always so fat, Carol wants to know, instantly lowering our assessment of her IQ by several points. In addition, the reasons for the ultimate foundering of that last romance just aren't convincing.
It's a shame this isn't February: The Last Romance would be the perfect Valentine's date for elderly couples, young lovers wanting to explore the outer edges of love, or college kids planning a special evening for their parents or grandparents.
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