Another New Jersey theater production with big-city aspirations (see the review of the McCarter's Translations) won't escape the Garden State. The George Street Playhouse's premiere of Joan Vail Thorne's The Things You Least Expect is as unwieldy as its title and not ready to venture up the turnpike. An intriguing notion inspired Thorne: Why can't an older woman (like sixtyish widow Clare, smartly played by Mary Beth Peil) pursue a romantic relationship with a much younger man? After all, men do it. Can't a woman pick up a trophy husband?
The playwright's remarks in the program don't translate to the stage, however. Instead, Clare's flirtation with lost soul Sam (studly, wooden Curtis Mark Williams) takes a Fatal Attraction turn when he pursues her to Italy, consummates their December-May liaison, then reveals that he's a controlling asshole much like Clare's late husband (who sought to rule his wife from the grave by paying Sam to watch her). Clare's much too happy learning to paint (something her husband forbade, along with driving) and wisely sends Sam packing.
What might have been an insightful play about real relationships just turns creepy: Sam seduces Clare's daughter Caroline (Jessica Dickey, with a nails-on-chalkboard whine) and befriends Clare's sister Myra (charmingly quirky Pamela Payton-Wright), but when Clare returns from Europe, Sam desperately professes his love again.
Clare and Sam (and the actors playing them) have no chemistry, no connection, so they're unbelievable from first to last. Thorne, whose The Exact Center of the Universe was well-received, doesn't seem to realize that saying "age doesn't matter" is irrelevant when a psycho's one half of the couple. When Caroline reveals the last straw that Sam has impregnated her the audience laughed out loud. I hoped for Clare to toss them all out, go back to Italy and find a sane, intelligent, sincere man of any age to fall in love with.
Told in spoken e-mails and sitcom-paced scenes, Thorne's meandering play is handsomely presented on a two-floor set by Michael Anania that suggests Clare's sterile marriage on one level and the freedom she finds alone on another.
There's a play lurking in this intriguing idea maybe Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher could star? but The Things You Least Expect isn't it.
The Things You Least Expect
Through Oct. 29,George Street Playhouse,9 Livingston Ave.,New Brunswick, N.J.,732-246-7717,www.GSPonline.org