It’s 1956 and the 36-year-old black-listed Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Kathleen McGuire is in a Reno, Nevada motel room waiting out a divorce from her patrician and odious husband who is in New York City. A repairman arrives to fix the air conditioner. The worldly and acerbic Kathleen is intrigued by this fresh-faced youth, offers him bagels and lox which he’s unfamiliar with and engages him in conversation. He is 20-year-old Richard Flynn who coincidentally is an aspiring playwright and is studying for the priesthood. Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” wafts through as admiration, lust and complications follow.
With traces of the wit of Dorothy Parker and the egotism and social consciousness of Lillian Hellman, the sensual Kathleen McGuire is a grand invention. Richard Flynn is an engaging embodiment of troubled youth seeking enlightenment. Their relationship crackles with dramatic potential that’s reminiscent of Donald Margulies’ two-character Collected Stories. It is disappointing that Mr. Small sidetracks it all with unrewarding tangents.
Small develops his promising William Inge-style scenario with his perfectly delineated characters, sharp dialogue that recalls the era and personal conflicts. Unfortunately, he embellishes this with flashbacks, fantasy sequences, ever shifting locales and minor characters. There are motel workers, an angry father, the vicious husband, a philosophical priest and figures from the past all of whom add little to the narrative.
The clumsy prologue takes place in a California hotel room where in 1981 Kathleen is dying of brain cancer as an operatic aria is heard. Before We’re Gone is therefore a memory play but that strand is poorly executed. In the second act the two are reunited and we learn how their lives turned out. The play’s beautifully powerful final moments are marred by Small’s further theatrical intrusiveness as there’s more stage business instead of merely a simple blackout. Luckily two excellent actors play the leading roles.
Wearing a kimono over a slip, and later gleaming white high waisted slacks with a white blouse while incessantly smoking and fixing drinks, the statuesque and rich voiced Leenya Rideout personifies the bygone glamour of Hollywood and Broadway as Kathleen. She’s Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell all rolled into one but without a trace of camp. Tossing her flowing curled hair and tossing off wisecracks with precision, Ms. Rideout magnificently conveys humor, vulnerability and resilience via her starry charisma. For her illness, she’s in a turban and vibrantly patterned caftan next to an IV and is just as commanding. Though we never learn what exactly Kathleen writes about when Rideout is furiously banging and smoking away at the typewriter and crinkling up pages and throwing them out à la Jane Fonda in Julia, we just know it’s something important.
With his soulful eyes, chiseled facial features, exceptionally athletic physique and longing vocal delivery, John Zdrojeski is the ideal sensitive boy next door as Richard. The intense Mr. Zdrojeski goes from gee whiz to emotional devastation with great effect. Zdrojeski is also visually and personally credible as the 45-year-old incarnation of the character. He and Rideout have an electric chemistry that’s most evident during a striking amorous sequence between their older selves.
Stage veteran Jay Russell gives his experienced all to imbue depth to the subsidiary male characters and in some cases, it’s heroic as they’re depicted in rapid succession. The charming Emily Juliette Murphy brings her appealing girlishness to her small roles with twinkling glee.
Director Joe John Battista certainly succeeds at guiding the performances and staging the individual scenes. Less successful is his collaboration with scenic designer Brian Dudkiewicz. Mr. Dudkiewicz provides suitable furnishings that realistically connote rented rooms. However, the props haven’t been prearranged to serve for all of the scenes and there’s not a strategic placement of the furniture for the same purpose. This results in a black-clad crew member appearing on stage in semi-darkness for the numerous first-act scene changes to rearrange furniture and to take away and replace props. It’s a perpetual distraction emphasizing the play’s deficiencies.
Allison Hohman’s lighting and sound design proficiently complements the production. Composer Joseph LoDuca’s original music is accomplished. All of Kathleen’s stylishly vintage ensembles are the dazzling handiwork of costume designer Martha Bromelmeier who clothes the other characters with comparable flair.
As frustrating as it is, due to its compelling core and ravishing central performances, Before We’re Gone has glimmers of achievement.
Before We’re Gone (through August 5, 2018)
13th Street Repertory Theatre, 50 East 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.13thstreetrep.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission