When seeing Charles Mee’s First Love at the Cherry Lane, take your emotional cue from Edward Pierce’s Magritte-influenced set. From its cloud covered doorway, to the leaf-shaped tree, to that end point that wraps itself around the side curtain, everything here is inspired by the natural world and simultaneously fanciful. If you can get yourself firmly in that mind space there’s a pleasant ride ahead, witnessing two people who could benefit from their shared time.
The phrase first love is nearly synonymous with young love, but in this case the lovers are closer to 70. They initially connect over memories of activism in the 1960, though from the beginning their idea of involvement is wildly different. Edith was an eager and active participant while the biggest impact that tumultuous period had on Harold occurred when he wasn’t even present. Though this disparity persists, their relationship takes root, nurtured by a Young Woman who appears to have powers similar to those of Cupid.
The romance is portrayed in a series of clipped scenes, some with moments of tenderness and others largely cruel and cutting. Throughout their story, the two essentially hold true to their 1960s selves. Edith initiates, entices and at one point boogies down to the whoops and hollers of the audience. Harold reacts and expresses his inner thoughts and turmoil aloud, both to himself and to us. Though Edith professes that Harold is changing her life, there is little character growth, which is perhaps realistic for a tale of two people who are farther down the path of life. The couple occasionally engages with the Young Women, but more often she is an outside observer, floating in with a prop or playing the piano on stage left.
Mee’s dialogue is excessively flowery, at points sticking to the roofs of the actors’ mouths. Edith and Harold sometimes speak Braavos-like of “a man” and “a woman”. While potentially distancing, these artistic flourishes also bring an air of old love poetry to their exchanges. The opening scene is thick with cultural references to luminaries from 1960 counterculture, culminating in Edith and Harold shouting the lines from “Howl” at one another. No context is given and it might be tough going for someone not familiar with Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman and Jack Kerouac. A gleeful rant about the very opinionated John Simon received the biggest laugh, but it is doubtful that many newer theater goers are familiar with a critical column that hasn’t been published in 13 years. Mee also makes questionable choices with the music used to connect beats of the script. The selection of classics from the 1940s — crowd-pleasers though they are — undercut the common ground from 20 years on that has been laid.
Given a script long on elements of the fantastic, director Kim Weild focuses attention on the more human elements of Edith and Harold’s interaction. Angelia Fiordellisi brings terrific exuberance to Edith while Michael O’Keefe has a realistic blend of vulnerability and soft sex appeal. Taylor Harvey makes a graceful spirit of love, though she falters in her unnecessarily lengthy tug of war with Harold over his selection of dessert. All three characters are buoyed by Theresa Squire’s costumes: flowing earth motherly layers for Fiordellisi, baseball cap and whatever is closest to the bed for O’Keefe, and sparkle, hearts, and flowers for Harvey. The back of Edward Pierce’s set is a delight, but the piece that functions as a bench, sofa, restaurant booth and more is not as clever as it should be to complete the vision. Paul Miller and Christian Frederickson are responsible for sturdy lighting and sound design.
The concept of developing a story of first love taking place between two people who came of age in the 60s in an intriguing one. While this First Love doesn’t quite fulfill the assignment, there is enough beneath its outer shell to provoke exploration. Performances continue at the Cherry Lane though July 8. Tickets are $65-$95 and are available at www.cherrylanetheatre.org or by calling Ovation Tix at 1.866.811.4111.