Review: ‘First Love’ for a Couple of a Certain Age

Theater

Edith and Harold, the solitary souls who become a pair in Charles Mee’s pleasingly jagged romantic comedy “First Love,” don’t so much meet cute as meet curmudgeonly. He’s snoozing on a park bench when she happens along and wants to sit.

“Shove up,” she tells him, and maybe she’d be less gruff if she knew that they were going to fall for each other — or maybe she’d pass him by altogether if she could see how much pain would be mixed with the devotion. Both in their 60s, they have gone their whole lives without ever knowing true love.

“Perhaps you would think of coming home with me,” Edith says, after they’ve gotten acquainted.

“Well, I think of myself as an outdoorsman really,” Harold says, then moves into her place anyway.

When “First Love” opened Off Broadway in September 2001, it was in a no-holds-barred production at New York Theater Workshop, directed by the playwright’s daughter Erin B. Mee, with the great Ruth Maleczech as Edith and Frederick Neumann as Harold. Memorably, both actors bared considerable skin — an audacious thing to do, especially for older performers, all the more so for an older woman.

The current revival, directed by Kim Weild at the Cherry Lane Theater, is a milder, more carnally modest interpretation, and I do miss the heightened sense of risk and abandon that was in the air the first time around. Still, there is something comfortable about this production, starring Angelina Fiordellisi and Michael O’Keefe, that makes it feel in tune with the needs of the present. Its smattering of surreal musical moments, meanwhile, makes it feel like classic Mee.

The play perceives the wider world as a place of dreamscape beauty (the Magritte-style set, by Edward Pierce, contributes to that) but also of hostility and danger. And while Edith and Harold’s relationship is volatile — “You’re like a baby with a switchblade,” she tells him, with cause — the little island of the two of them often feels like a refuge, albeit a fragile one.

Mr. Mee has written at least a dozen plays that he classifies as love stories, and “First Love” is one of the best known. But he is a sucker for romance, and in plays like “Big Love” and “True Love,” swooning passion is more often what he’s talking about: a feeling that doesn’t have much hope of lasting. “First Love” goes deeper — to the bottom-of-the-soul ugliness of lovers’ worst selves, shown to each other in moments of rage, but also to the tender comfort of simple companionship and the elemental need for affection.

“Love is the glue of human society,” Harold says. “We can’t live without it.”

Good thing he shoved up, then, and agreed to share the bench.

First Love
Through July 8 at Cherry Lane Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, cherrylanetheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

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