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Southern Comforts

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Some shows go out of their way to court younger theatregoers, others don't even try. Resolutely ensconced in the latter category is Southern Comforts, Kathleen Clark's new play that Primary Stages is premiering at the 59E59 Theaters. This potpourri-homey show, about two people discovering each other several decades after they first thought love was forever, is as sweetly intentioned and inoffensive as any in New York; if you're a firm believer that life begins at 70, then Southern Comforts is for you.

Whether it's for anyone else, however, is another question. Even if the younger set can't easy relate to Empty Nest Syndrome or the politics of tombstones (when you die, should you be buried next to your late wife of several decades, or your new wife of just a few years?), one would think Clark's messages about tolerance of differences and the necessity of compromise would resonate with familiarity. Aren't some things true at any age? Here, though, the not-quite-there-yets and the not-even-closes might well find this a more listless and remote evening than Clark intended.

Not even the redoubtable Penny Fuller and Larry Keith, who costar as Gus and Amanda, the duo who discover it's never too late to fill the holes in your heart with another person, can make Southern Comforts that rejuvenating if you haven't had to face these issues head-on. That the play is essentially laundry-list theatre doesn't help: With a certain set of predetermined points to be considered and resolved before things can wrap up, neither actor has much to play, and most plot developments invariably feel more contrived than concrete.

Amanda is from Tennessee, visiting her daughter in the small New Jersey town Gus has always made his home. She's delivering his church donation envelopes, he doesn't attend regularly. (Cue discussion about religion.) After a predictably uncomfortable getting-to-know-you period - they're both widowed, each has one interfering-but-distant child - it's obvious they're interested in each other, but are unsure of the wisdom of getting involved at this point in their lives. (Time for the uncertainty and reassurance to flow.)

As they start dating, politics inevitably comes up: Which is the Republican, and which is the Democrat? Amanda loves to travel; the obstinate Gus wants to stay put. Should they have sex before they marry? For that matter, should they even get married? Should Amanda move all her belongings from Tennessee into Gus's minimally decorated dwelling? Is he willing to make room for her in his precisely ordered life? What happens if he's not?

At least in this production, which has been efficiently if loosely directed by Judith Ivey, these questions and their answers are not especially compelling. There's no locomotion leading Gus and Amanda from one situation to another: For example, their quibbling about furniture in one scene bears no real connection to the extended comedy set piece about them replacing a storm window that immediately follows it. Each new complication is only a speed bump in the rocky road of their relationship, but when viewed collectively, they don't become a dramatic mountain worth scaling.

If they both read too youthful and supple for the jaded septuagenarians they're playing, Keith and Fuller don't disappoint: He presents a warmly likeable blend of industry and crotchetiness; she, unrecognizable behind her lightly bobbed hair and a lovely Southern lilt, seems every bit the faded free spirit the script calls for. From the very first scene, the two have just the right been-there-done-that quality you might have seen in your own grandparents once-upon-a-time, where the blush of romance had long ago been supplanted by a warm blanket of historical inevitability. Even when they've just met, it seems as though they've always been together, and they always will.

That kind of safe, cozy charm permeates everything on offer here, from Thomas Lynch's sunny-stuffy set to Brian Nason's Sunday-afternoon lighting, and even Paul Schwartz's off-kilter-traditional string-quartet score. But charm alone usually isn't enough to coax someone on a walk around town if he'd rather just lounge in his La-Z-Boy: As Amanda says at one point, "It is important for a person to know where they belong"; the same is true of plays, too. Southern Comforts knows where it belongs, it's not budging, and if you're not with it, you might as well be out in the cold.

Southern Comforts
Through November 4
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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