If you ever want to see a textbook example of how three actors can overcome an unfortunate script, go see First Love by Charles Mee, now at the None Too Fragile Theater in Akron.
This play, about two oldsters who meet cute on a park bench and then go through a high speed time-lapse relationship, has a lot to say about love and loss and the scattershot nature of romantic attraction. Too much to say, actually, since Mee has a lot on his mind and he doesn’t really care how fast it spills out and which of his characters carry his thematic water.
But against all odds, the play actually gives the appearance of working, thanks to the superb three-person cast of Robert Hawkes, Anne McEvoy and Rachel Roberts, and their director Sean Derry. They invest this script with such pulsing humanity you can’t look away, even as your mind races to make sense of a not particularly sensible plot.
Aging Edith meets the equally tottering Harold in the park, and after a brief set-to they settle into a cozy conversation spiced with lefty political references and fueled by a bottle of wine from Edith’s rolling shopping cart. Initially, it appears that both are homeless, since they are wearing torn and dirty clothing. But soon, they wind up at Edith’s apartment furnished with an upright piano and some rather elegant-looking duds.
Setting aside Edith’s earlier curious impersonation of a homeless woman, playwright Mee has his two age-challenged folk drift closer with loving gestures and then jarringly attack each other. At one moment, these two are singing romantic tunes and then they’re arguing about this and that—from where the magazines are placed to how Harold’s children might be accepted by Edith.
Then they explore a wide range of sexual options, as Harold admits he likes rubbing buttocks with another person and she confesses an erotic fondness for feet and dominance. Then they strip almost naked (to the steamy notes of Peggy Lee's "Fever") and get it on under the covers adding another, um, wrinkle to the somewhat less-than-appetizing imagery of senior on-stage sex.
This all arises out of skimpy character back stories that are force-fed by Mee, with Harold tidily lamenting, “I neglected my family and friends…”, etc. Edith similarly sums up her worries about the future and her own self worth. Mee piles banalities (they spontaneously take an air-headed women's magazine quiz on romance) on top of hostile generalities (Harold: "This is why men burn down houses!") and gruesome non-sequiturs (Edith: "This is why women flush baby boys down the toilet!"). It's all in service of establishing an artificially contentious relationship that they can then artificially overcome.
Somehow, though, Hawkes and McEvoy take that stale tripe and turn it into Lobster Newburg. McEvoy invests each moment with Edith’s immediate need; you can feel her waft and wane with each comment from Harold. And Hawkes makes his character’s turn-on-a-dime mood shifts seem believable, occasionally scary and sometimes quite poignant. Coming in and out of the play is a magnetic Rachel Roberts, playing a snippy waitress, plus a lounge pianist who appears in Edith’s apartment along with other fantastical characters dancing in Harold’s head.
Director Derry effectively fashions all this into a 90-minute experience that unfortunately ends on a too-pat, feel-good conclusion. The whole thing may leave you confused about the characters, but you'll be dazzled by the acting talent in NTF's intimate space.
Through October 24 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), nonetoofragile.com.