That Seventies Show

"I just like to rub my buttocks on someone else's buttocks," Harold confesses to Edith, while setting up a barbecue. "I like to kiss someone's buttocks, too, or just fondle them, but mostly I just love to rub buttocks." The point is not lost on Edith. In a gesture that gets to the core of the tender accommodation between new lovers, she seduces him later, grinding to a striptease tune and yanking her skirt down so she can wag her naked tush at him. In turn, Harold pulls off his own clothing, rears into Edith, and the two seventy-something sweethearts skim their bouncing bare butts against one another in a delirious bout of "cheek-to-cheek" dancing.

It's hard to imagine any actors other than Frederick Neumann and Ruth Maleczech bringing such abandon, humor, and sexiness to the scene. The two downtown virtuosos have shared a stage for more than 30 years as members of Mabou Mines, honing a performance style that is at once ironic and unafraid of raw emotion, both intimate and unashamedly frontal. With a slight tremble of the fingers or an insouciant fling of her red hair, Maleczech can convey Edith's anxiety or hubris even as she implies a depth of feeling and range of context far beyond what the character knows about herself. Neumann summons Harold's pathos when he stands in still, dumbfounded silence; he offers both a filled-out character as well as a layer of commentary as he waxes pompously through Harold's philosophical discourses on the meaning of love. Both actors are fearless, trusting each other like trapeze artists.

Charles L. Mee's First Love, a surprisingly sweet and slender play compared to his grand adaptations of Greek tragedies and his disparaging political dramas, must be pure pleasure for Maleczech and Neumann. Though the work climaxes with a door-slamming, dish-smashing, lung-straining fight that's as dark as it is funny, First Love's couple is never so abrasive or desperate as the atomized lovers Maleczech and Neumann played nearly two decades ago in Franz Xaver Kroetz's Through the Leaves. In that primal tragedy of working-class yearning, Maleczech hacked raw meat onstage as the spiritually hungry Annette, confessing in diary entries her hopes and disappointments; as brutish Victor, Neumann was both understandable and repellent, unable to think past his own rough pleasures. The performance was devastating: an experience of brutality between a man and woman in social circumstances that admitted no alternatives.

Neumann and Maleczech: aging lefties in love
photo: Joan Marcus
Neumann and Maleczech: aging lefties in love

Details

First Love
By Charles L. Mee
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
212-460-5475

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Mee's couple is far more articulate and self-aware, and he's less interested than Kroetz in their class status or stifling social options. (And Erin B. Mee's direction of First Love is far more fanciful.) Still, the play reaches beyond a miniature portrait of two besotted seniors. Amid Klara Zieglerova's surrealist set, where a red tree branch perches on a wall like antlers and painted puffy clouds decorate the floor, we are definitely not on Golden Pond.

Edith and Harold meet when she shoves him out of his nap on a park bench so that she can sit down. After a few curmudgeonly exchanges, they bond quickly over a shared nostalgia for a dissident time. "We lost a lot when we lost Communism," Edith sighs. Harold understands at once, answering in lefty shorthand, "Castro! Castro!" Soon they are reciting lines from Ginsberg's "Howl" in a declamatory union as intimate as sex.

If the play's space is seamless—barbecue, refrigerator, grand piano, and couch all sharing a single setting—time is even more unmarked. There's no telling how many days or months or years pass from scene to scene—simply as long as it takes for the romance to spark, deepen, collapse, and resolve. It's as if Edith and Harold are in their own bubble, its contours both cozily embracing and distorting their lives. That membrane is punctured by the occasional sudden appearance of a tart young woman (Jennifer Hall). She pops up first as a waitress to deny Harold the dessert he craves, then to croon out a sappy version of "Dream when you're feeling blue," and finally to stir Harold's fantasies as an apparition of chippy femininity, gliding across the stage.

These interludes seem overly calculated, even gratuitous. Edith and Harold—Maleczech and Neumann, anyway—are more interesting without a third party between them. It's clear enough, though, why Mee would want to embody something of a lover's inner life, which always remains independent of the relationship: He's interested not only in the astonishing fact of falling in love at any age, but also in the unanticipated passions that might drive one out of it.

Mee's language is playful and sharp, best of all when Edith and Harold fight. Bringing the same sort of attention to her partner's obsessions that she brought to their lovemaking, Edith digs right into Harold's deepest doubts when they argue: "No wonder your family won't speak to you," she accuses. "You're like a baby with a switchblade."

As enjoyable and disturbing as the battling becomes, Mee allows his characters to become generic, man and woman from Mars and Venus. He forgets, for instance, the radicalism that attracted them to each other, which would surely find wicked expression in the heat of argument. For old lefties like the ones Mee paints in the first scene, the justifiability of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, say, or the guilt of the Rosenbergs remain bitter differences, always worth appealing to when recrimination is called for.

Still, their reproaches are as delicious as their flirting, courtship, and discovery of mutual comfort. Maleczech and Neumann bring them all to panting life, always as if for the first time.

 
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