IF YOU GO
What: Two senior citizens take a final chance on love
When: 8 p.m. Wed. - Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun. through March 3
Where: 1055 N. Collier Blvd. Marco Island
Cost: $25 & $23
Information: Call 642-7270 or themarcoplayers.com
Something Else: The theater is located in the Marco Town Center Mall directly across from the Crazy Flamingo restaurant.
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
MARCO ISLAND — The Marco Players went to the park - the dog park - for Valentine's Day. Winsome Joe DiPietro play "The Last Romance" follows lovelorn Ralph Bellini as he muddles through a complicated tangle of hounds and heartbreak. Expect big laughs.
DiPietro crafts a tight, delicious tale that wraps three broken, withdrawn characters around a slip of greenery and a park bench. DiPietro set his show in Hoboken; the Marco Players plopped this one right on the island. Really, it might be located anywhere the elderly congregate in their sunset minutes, clinging to friends both two-legged and four in lieu of battling life's tides.
There's a dog, a ferociously cute little furball named Roxie (Peaches in the play), but it's not about the dog. The dog is just a symbol. You like the dog. But the dog is not important. The dog represents lots of things - but mostly affection. Presence of the dog, either physically in the scene or in conversation, relates to how the relationships are going. It's a neat trick.
Florida Repertory Theatre produced a version of "The Last Romance" in April 2009. The theatre is recognized in the front of the Dramatists acting editions and quotes from the Naples Daily News are on the back cover.
Director Beverly Dahlstrom has labored over the show for months, obsessing over the casting, the opera portions and more. The material falls squarely within her wheelhouse - and seems tailor-made for Marco Island audiences. Parts are brilliant. Parts are ragged. I wish the overall picture came together in a more cohesive fashion.
Dahlstrom wrings every bit of comedy out of DiPietro's snappy, witty script. Wednesday's opening night house was packed with pensioners who laughed with abandon. Dahlstrom has an instinct for timing and how to communicate that to her actors, especially the one-liners that require just the right amount of sass to land.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?" / You should put your glasses on!"
The problem? There's precious little depth underneath the comedy. The show's central relationship between a damaged Ralph (Jim Corsica) and a hurting Carol (Kathleen Barney) never feels believable. In pressing so hard to make the show an amusing, enjoyable experience (which it absolutely is), the real meaning of "The Last Romance" got lost along the way.
I can see where Dahlstrom and her actors wanted to nudge the show toward something less pensive, less meditative, especially to audiences packed with seniors who might identify closely with Ralph or Carol. Yet, in doing so, the truth of the play, the blooming of self in response to facing pain, gets lost. Corsica and Barney lack any real chemistry on stage. The delicate verbal seduction between Ralph and Carol falls prey to one-liners and unimaginative blocking.
The pair are funny - yes - but I want a sense of the audacious, still-sexy-at-80 Ralph slowly reeling in the uptight Carol by sheer force of his personality. This man, this roaring Italian might be physically weak, but he once sang on stage at the Met; Ralph has spirit - he's still an Italian stallion in his own mind. That never really comes across.
Veteran amateur actress Marilyn Hilbert steals the show. She brings real heart, wit and charm to her portrayal of emotionally ruined sister Rose. Hilbert gives the character exactly the right amount of fussbudget scolding and worrywart anxiety. I love the way she shoos away dogs - even though she's seated on a bench in a dog park.
DiPietro's one-liners save the night. No matter who delivers a particular saying, the tart turns of phrase delight, like this one, from Hilbert's Rose: "My brother is quite the catch. He can still drive at night."
That one put the audience over the edge. They literally erupted in howls. The woman behind me must have thought she was at a church service; she was moved to testify, hollering "THAT IS SO TRUE!" in a voice loud enough they must have heard it on the stage.
One of the play's smallest, but most powerful, emotional moments arrives with a sledgehammer, courtesy Hilbert. Her Rose receives a letter from long-estranged husband (22 years) Tony. As she reads, it becomes clear that living alone is not living at all.
Experienced thespian Corsica brings a jocular style to his Ralph. His background with Naples City Improv proves beneficial. "I don't have too much time left. / Are you sick? / No. I'm eighty!" Corsica makes Ralph a trickster with a heart. If we don't always get to see the heart, we do know it is there.
Barney makes for a pleasant Carol, the dog owner with a secret. She brings a vulnerability and tenderness to the role. Her natural exuberance brings needed passion. Joseph Byrne plays the opera singer, a reflection of the younger Ralph.
I love the moment when Ralph recounts his audition at the Met to Carol. "I only got two minutes… / I know, but you're a bit long-winded, so I think a time limit might be good."
Lights dim and Corsica rises from his place on the park bench beside Barney. Byrne emerges from the shadows and stands still, hat gripped in his hand, under a spotlight. In dueling sentences, they tell the tale. "And I got to the end and no one said stop. So I kept going…"
And Byrne begins to sing.
In those few moments, as the light fades and notes of Italian opera ring out and two visions of Rafael Bellini look out over the audience, the play does hit home.
Seize your opportunities. Forget the pain of the past. Don't let regret hold you back. Sing. Listen. Laugh. Walk. Cook. Enjoy life. Be like opera - big, bold, loud. I wish "The Last Romance" had embraced its own lesson so forcefully.
The show's creative details are just as frustratingly uneven. I've no issue with transporting the show to Marco Island, but the acres of fake shrubbery offer little clue to any sort of balmy setting. No sand, no palm trees, no tropical flowers.
At the same time, painter Asquit White creates an absolutely stunning wraparound vision of greenery and sky that makes you believe you're inside a park.
Angela Hinton's costumes are spot on for Hilbert's lonely sister. Practical prints, subdued pantsuits and a soft coral outfit give the character a clear sense of place and identity.
Yet, Barney's character, described as a former "executive secretary," never seems quite upscale or elegant enough. Even given the new tropical setting, her clothes and shoes seem far too casual. Her Carol never feels far enough out of Ralph's league for the energy of the star-crossed-lovers' romance to fully glow.
"The Last Romance" offers much to … well, love. Laughs come quickly, easily and frequently. An adorable puppy makes a few appearances. Three veteran amateur actors offer up their best as folks just looking for happiness. Watch them try to find it - and maybe find yours in the process.