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Saturn Returns

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Robert Eli, Rosie Benton, and John McMartin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"I can't live without you." Usually, when a man utters these words, he doesn't really mean them. Oh, he may believe he does, but deep down he knows that if love truly is forever, then life will always find a way to continue until it must naturally stop. And most of Noah Haidle's sweet but underdeveloped new play Saturn Returns, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, seems to be about nothing more than proving that anxiously exaggerated statement.

But by the time the show is over, Haidle has made a convincing case for its veracity. Though the vehicle he's written is too often sparse, its primary message is a sufficiently fresh variation on what could easily be a tired conceit. In Haidle's conception, undying devotion doesn't mean you'll give all your life to one person, so you'll be devastated if she dies. Instead, you'll make your life into her, so that even after she vanishes you'll never be left alone.

This subtle twist is enough to align this play with Haidle's other New York work, which in Mr. Marmalade (at Roundabout) and Rag and Bone (at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater) has leaned toward the brutally symbolic. The only thing violent in either the script or Nicholas Martin's production, though, is Gustin's love for his wife Loretta. It so completely consumes his adult life that neither his daughter Zephyr nor a visiting assisted-living worker named Suzanne can escape its event horizon.

So it makes sense that all three women in Gustin's life are played by a single actress (Rosie Benton), even though Gustin himself is played by at three different stages of his life by three different actors: at 28 (by Robert Eli), at 58 (by James Rebhorn), and at 88 (by John McMartin). The ages are not coincidental, either: Each coincides with an astrological "Saturn return," named for the length of time that planet needs to orbit the sun, and each of which supposedly ushers in a new wave of challenge, doubt, and accomplishment in life.

That's what we see in Gustin, especially as reflected by these three crucial women. As a young man struggling to pursue a medical career, he's recklessly smitten with Loretta, unprepared for either fatherhood or being robbed of his wife all too soon. When Zephyr is 29 and yearns to make her own way in the world, Gustin must finally cope with his losses and find a new path (and maybe a new mate). After Zephyr herself dies and Gustin faces 90 and beyond alone, he hooks onto Suzanne as a final way to commune with the most important woman in his life he barely had time to know.

Rosie Benton and James Rebhorn.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It's easy to know how he feels. In limiting his play's running time to 75 minutes, Haidle doesn't allow himself the breathing room he needs to develop these relationships beyond light, if energetic, pencil sketches. You simply need more space to examine the lives and loves of four complex people over a span of 60 years - without a larger canvas and a palette of more vivid colors, it's difficult to do justice to Gustin and the women he reveres and transforms.

Haidle provides some intriguing waypoints that hint at detailed, dynamic potential in the various partnerships. The young Gustin sparks a fight with Loretta - the one that indirectly produces his daughter - by commenting on her arms while at the symphony. Gustin-at-58 is nearly a stand-up comedian opposite Zephyr, rebuffing attempts to replace Loretta with a wisecracking attitude that suggest he doesn't take seriously the threat of another impending loss. And the oldest Gustin unlocks an eerie cosmic significance merely in ordering scrambled eggs and grapefruit juice for breakfast.

We're just not given the opportunity to see the myriad ways in which all this could unfold, or how the past, present, and future can truly inform each other within one grief-stricken mind. Martin folds together the time periods as much as he can, overlapping entrances and exits to some degree on Ralph Funicello's homey living-room set, and this helps a little. But only when Haidle unites all the actors and characters in a touching temporal tangle of the final scene do dreams, reality, and the emotions connecting them result in the unified expression of eternal passion the entire evening aspires to.

Benton comes closest to justifying this resolution throughout her portrayal, bringing an endearing, enigmatic quality to all three women that unites them in one universe of romantic joy. Eli, sunny and brash but with a dash of the easily haunted, matches her early on, while the hazy reverie McMartin effects definitely seems to be that same hopelessly hopeful outlook 60 years on. Rebhorn, however, is lost in the middle, looking and sounding like neither actor, and wielding a razor-edged harshness evident nowhere else in Gustin's history.

At least that we see. Forced to raise and lose Zephyr alone, Gustin at that age has some reason to be bitter. But like so much else, we're forced to accept it at face value rather than experience that pain and anger in real time. Saturn Returns, for all its honesty and beauty, doesn't linger long enough on anyone or anything for us to feel as deeply for its characters as they supposedly do for each other. Haidle has the beginnings of a real winner here, but needs to remember exactly what he wants to impart to us: Whether you have 30 years or 30 seconds, make every moment count.

Saturn Returns
Through January 4
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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