Monday, December 16, 2013

Last calls and last chances at Merrimack

Photo by Meghan Moore.


If you've already surfeited on sugarplums, or drunk too many cups of saccharine "cheer," then the Merrimack Rep in Lowell may have just the tonic you're looking for - Bruce Graham's Stella and Lou, a slight romance for the world-weary which under the direction of Charles Towers lands squarely on that sentimental spot that the scar tissue of experience can never quite cover - and indeed, perhaps only makes more tender.

But no, I'm not here to pretend that this playwright breaks any new ground with his low-key valentine to last chances. Two lonely, all-but-lost souls. An empty bar - the kind where everybody knows your name, but nobody knows your number. The last minute before last call. Do I have to say more?

Only that if Graham isn't the most original of dramatists, he's nevertheless somehow one of the most authentic.  Stella and Lou slowly wins you over with its every small-but-genuine gesture.  There isn't even an inch of artistic leeway in its formulaic mechanics - you sense that with a single false step, this seventy-minute playlet could suddenly sag into a big, soft, beer-soaked Hallmark card.

But at Merrimack, there simply aren't any false steps, in either play or performance, so the pay-offs feel earned - and the sentiment goes down like a smooth, chill draft of theatrical pleasure. As the eponymous Stella and Lou, a widowed bartender and the nurse who has set her cap for him, stars Antoinette LaVecchia and Bill Geisslinger are, well, simply perfect. That's all - just perfect.  Bill Clarke's set, too, is so right in its laid-back, sports-bar squalor that it's almost scary. (The pleasures of precision are perhaps the hardest to argue against, aren't they.) As for the direction - well, let's just say that next to Charles Towers, everyone in Boston - and I mean every single director - looks a little schmaltzy. The technique of this under-rated auteur has never been drier, or more effective.

That said, I still have a small bone to pick with the playwright. Even within the limits he openly sets, we wonder whether Geisslinger gets quite enough to work with to justify the play's dilatory climax. But these days, I've learned not to look a gift play in the mouth (to coin a rather mixed metaphor). Stella and Lou was clearly intended as a vehicle (indeed, an early iteration showcased Rhea Perlman from "Cheers"). But somehow, thanks to the skills of this cast and crew, the script jumps the rails at Merrimack, and briefly takes wing.

More on Merrimack Rep's productions of Glengarry Glen Ross, Proof, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

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