By K. Lindsay Eaves
Amana - They say you always remember your first love, but what about your last? Unfamiliar with Joe DiPietro’s script or his Tony-winning reputation, I was admittedly somewhat trepidatious when I took my seat amid a slightly older demographic to view what was billed as a love-story at the end of life. And then Troy Bruchwalski (“Young Man”) strutted on-stage and I sat up straight with renewed interest. With a dapper suit and a Ryan Gosling swagger, Bruchwalski’s operatic swell set the tone for the high notes The Last Romance would hit. As his younger self, this might have been a hard act for some to follow, but not for David Q. Combs (“Ralph”). His character exuded a kind of youthful brashness that at times had you wondering if he’d popped a little too much Viagra. But it was all in good fun. Combs’ Ralph is an audacious extrovert kept on a short leash by his over-bearing, if well-meaning, sister, Rose (played by Rachael Lindhart). As first-generation Italian immigrants living in Hoboken, NJ, they form a tight family unit brought together by mutual losses in love. And they’ve forged a good life together from those disappointments. Well, perhaps not good, but comfortable in its predictability and blandness. But all this is changed one day by a chance meeting in a dog park.
Why does life happen the way it does? A callback from the Metropolitan Opera not conveyed, a stroke in front of the television rather than in bed, letters unopened, and a chance stomachache in the morning that causes one to walk a different route at a different time. Of course, this is assuming that such events are random, rather than in some way orchestrated. As Ralph says later, “We all lie so we don’t end up alone.” The underlying order of these seemingly random acts of fate, and the motivations of every character, return to the same place: fear of being alone. While it is a quirk that leads Ralph to see the lovely Carol (Licia Watson) hovering over her rescue mutt, "Cookie," at a dog park he didn’t even know existed, it is NO accident that he returns the next day at the same time—this time, in his good Banana Republic button-up shirt (much to Rose’s confusion and chagrin). Ralph is a man on a mission to woo and he does so with abandon and buffoonery.
This isn’t fate. When Ralph falls for Carol, it is because he has chosen her. He pursues her with an urgency that makes one ever-mindful that he views this as his last chance for romance. Or that’s what I surmised, because Carol, to begin with, is no gem. She’s a fit, good-looking woman in her 70s, sure. A glimpse of her red curls might have stopped any man at that park. However, from the outset, Watson plays her with such a grimace, and such a baffling hostility, that most pursuers would’ve turned tail and run away. Observing the first few minutes of Ralph and Carol’s interactions, I was momentarily concerned. Was I was going to be treated to an evening akin to the overenthusiastic overtures of a male dog doing what, well, dogs often do? Much to my relief, Watson had given her character room to grow and to gradually open herself to the possibility of love. She might have started with a bit less vitriol, but through this growth, we witness as Carol blooms into a funny, warm, and even impulsive woman willing to take control when it comes to those near to her heart. Her near-hysterical breakdown when “Streusel” or “Pop-Tart” (or whatever her baked-good named dog is called) is sniffing around a hole in the fence provides a big laugh. This arc is a character choice to be noted, as the other cast members did not allow for such, and often came off less dimensional. Admittedly, this may owe to the rather abbreviated rehearsal period that the Old Creamery Theatre follows, made even shorter due to a last-minute re-casting. Yes, that’s right, in the curtain speech, the audience was warned that Combs had only been in his role a week and might therefore have to refer to his script at times. Merde. Fortunately, these moments were relatively infrequent and charmingly deployed, but such a circumstance must certainly make it difficult to fully commit to one’s character or to connect completely with your scene partner. That said, having seen the show its opening weekend, I have faith that the performances will improve with age and future shows will offer a more full-bodied experience.
Ralph tells us he is passionate about the opera because everything is so much larger than life. Ultimately, it is this love that is he is able to bestow upon Carol. Combs plays Ralph from the beginning at full throttle and with complete abandon, but ultimately, no stamina. Whether this was a character choice is unclear, but it fits well within his character’s arc. In two life-altering circumstances, we see Ralph perform with gusto but then all too easily resign himself to being struck down by the Fates. It is the women who grow in this story. Each in her own way considers a new life for herself by shedding past disappointments and insecurities. Ironically, it is Ralph that inspires them, though he has held nothing back for himself.
Director Krista Neumann has treated us to a pleasant lark in the dog park. The Last Romance plays out on a spare but effective set: a park bench, a tree, the suggestion of a living room. This canvas, provided by set-designer Tom Milligan and scenic artist Ali M. Allender-Zivic, comes alive with the hubbub of the dog park and the operatic accompaniment of the opera hall through the skill of musical consultant, Shari Rhoads. And each day and each time of day is lovingly bathed in its own dappling shade by lighting designer, Jonathan Allender-Zivic. And for a show with a dog in it, even if he DOES resemble a “guinea pig with a tail” (as is remarked by both Ralph and Rose), it is remarkable that this baked good-named mutt didn’t steal the spotlight.
The Last Romance is for anyone who has loved and lost and loved again. It is a story for anyone still looking for the love they think has gone from their life, only to find it again in unexpected places: in the dog park, in your pet, your sibling, and even just within yourself. While I can’t say that I fell in love with The Last Romance, I did much enjoy the evening’s flirtation. And I was grateful for the gentle prodding that DiPetro’s script afforded to examine my own motivations and whether they are out of quiet desperation or true love. The Last Romance is about meeting life on its terms, but as an equal. In life, as in opera, it’s not over until the fat lady sings.
The Last Romance runs through May 26 at the Old Creamery Theatre. Tickets here.