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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Last Fall: Bittersweet Romantic Comedy

Also see Bob's reviews of Manuscript and Yankee Tavern

The Last Fall is a gentle, bittersweet two-handed romantic comedy. It is pleasant and likeable, and lovingly performed by a brace of polished actors. Thus, it feels thuggish to have to report that this world premiere comedy by Stephanie Berry also is thin and dullish, and feels attenuated at its present length.

The setting is the area of a park bench in the West 70s on Manhattan's Riverside Drive. The play consists of two scenes on September nights ten years apart (1998 and 2008) each divided into five alternating sections. The play, which appears to be an extended one-acter, is being performed with an intermission although the break after the fifth section feels particularly arbitrary and inappropriate because each two sections (1998 and 2008) are in effect paired. The unusual structure is effective as it repeatedly refreshes our awareness of and interest in the question of how the protagonists came from their first meeting to the situation in which they find themselves ten years later.

Neville and Rhea are both 50ish and now single parents when they meet in 1998. Neville, a taxi driver (and owner of five additional cabs), refuses to give Rhea, a school teacher, a ride to her home in Harlem because it is his last fare of the day, and he only wants a fare going downtown in the direction of his Brooklyn home. They will thrust and parry for hours as they develop affection for one another before the stubborn Neville finally agrees to drive the equally stubborn Rhea uptown.

Neville and Rhea are rather mismatched. Neville is an eccentric Trinidadian who is very honest and explicit about his irrepressible lusting after pretty women and inability to remain monogamous. Rhea bemoans the burdens of housekeeping and child care that are expected from women in addition to their full time employment. She is certainly the more proper of the two. Yet, and here is where The Last Fall is at its best, there is a palpable warmth and tenderness between them which Berry's script and the performances viscerally convey. It is Berry's heartwarming conceit that one's deepest and most meaningful emotional relationship can spring from the most unexpected and unpromising encounter. All that I'll further say about the 2008 scene is that the conclusion of this scene (and the play) is moving and satisfying.

Roscoe Orman, best known for his 35 years of portraying Gordon on "Sesame Street," has an innate charm which is ideal for Neville. No matter how sexist Neville may sometimes be, Orman's warmth endears him to us.

The lesser known Lizan Mitchell effectively portrays the tenser, more richly emotionally complex Rhea, raising the temperature of her performance in the crucial final section.

The multi-talented Lynda Gravatt has directed smoothly, maximizing the play's charm. Patrice Davidson's open setting is artful, evocative and eminently playable.

The Last Fall's greatest appeal will be to older audiences.

The Last Fall continues performances through May 2 (Evenings: Wednesday-Saturday. 8pm/ Matinees: Sat.-Sun. 3pm at the Crossroads Theatre, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 ; Box Office: 732-545-8100; online: www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org,

The Last Fall by Stephanie Berry; directed by Lynda Gravatt

Cast
Rhea....................Lizan Mitchell
Neville................Roscoe Orman


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- Bob Rendell



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