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A CurtainUp Review
Things You Least Expect

’m on my way to find my way.—. Clare

Mary Beth Peil and Curtis Mark Willliams
Mary Beth Peil and Curtis Mark Willliams (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The romance novel is alive and heaving amid torrid declarations of love and expressions of passion in Joan Vail Thorne’s lively bit of dramatic poppycock The Things You Least Expect. This engaging, if mainly preposterous, play is having its world premiere following its workshop development (part of last season’s Next Stage Festival) at the George Street Playhouse. Notwithstanding its far-fetched contrivances and untidy convolutions, this excursion into a May/December romance embraces what some might call an older woman’s autumnal fantasy. Its older women performers, Mary Beth Peil and Pamela Payton-Wright offer performances that certainly measure up to the highest level of soap opera reality.

Given that Clare (Mary Beth Peil), a woman on the " dim mysterious side of sixty " is dressed in black and sits doing needlepoint in a room that adjoins the one in which her husband lies stiff in his coffin, one might think she is grieving. Not so. She is actually quite pleased with the way things turned out as she responds to her older sister Myra’s (Pamela Payton-Wright) awareness of her smiles with " I’m feeling just a bit giddy. " Why on earth should Claire be so elated? The possibility that the handsome and 20-something attendant watching over the coffin might have something to do with Clare’s uninhibited expression of joy troubles Myra, who begins to suspect a little hanky panky.

Unbeknownst to Clare, her husband arranged, for Sam (Curtis Mark Willliams), who claims to be a Chaplain intern, to be a friend to his wife during her hospital vigils. Sam's paid assignment was to continue as the escort of the deceased into the next world. Sam’s job, it seems, involves more than sitting alone with the coffin. It is Clare, stunning and vital beauty that she is, who has gotten the full escort service treatment and fallen hopelessly in love with Sam. Needless to say, Myra is shocked by Clare’s "ridiculous behavior " and Clare’s admission of her impetuous affair.

Myra becomes suspicious of Sam’s motives regarding her sister, the ever vulnerable rich widow. Are we surprised when Clare decides to go off willy-nilly to Italy, that Sam follow her there, unbeknownst to either Myra or Clare’s 20-something daughter Caroline (Jessica Dickey)? Are we surprised that in Act II we watch Clare and Sam billing and cooing in Rome, Venice and Florence, walking hand in hand through an art gallery, and revealing their intimacy? With the obligatory display of Sam’s abs, there comes the revelation that he actually might be in love with Clare?

When Clare has second thoughts about her relationship with Sam she takes up painting with a teacher who ends up stealing from her. When Sam gets the brush-off, he heads back to a suddenly enamored Myra and a surprisingly smitten Caroline with whom he begins an affair. He keeps his episode with Clare a secret, as Myra and Caroline continue to receive her emails. "Emails are for people who can’t face each other on the telephone," says Myra, a spinster whose is suddenly looking for ways to spend her money. Did someone say something about Sam and college? Will Myra make a rash decision before Clare returns home? And will Caroline and Myra find out about Sam and Clare? And will Sam take them to the cleaners?

Peil, whose Broadway credits include Anna in the revival of The King and I the revival of Nine, carries with her the burden of proof that her character would have no qualms about having an affair with a much younger man, which she proceeds to do with an effervescent sensuality. Wright, who just recently gave a wonderful performance in A.R. Gurney’s Indian Blood Off-Broadway, is amusing as the brittle protective sister. Dickey is fine as the prodigal daughter who returns from her sojourn in India ready for a fling. Williams, also a well-credentialed actress, rises to the challenge of being affable as the opportunistic Sam.

Ms Thorne, best known as a stage director and author of the play, The Exact Center of the Universe, may be shamelessly indulging herself while also gratuitously appealing to an audience of a certain age. That said: We’ve seen worse and better. Director David Saint embraces the twaddle with an apparent affection for it, and set designer Michael Anania frames it in a two-level set with a turntable that effectively becomes various sitting and waiting rooms hither and yon.

Of course, Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting casts a romantic glow on the proceedings. With dialogue like " The city shimmers with mutability, The Things You Last Expect expects little more than your indulgence and your awareness of its theme, that a betrayal may beget an epiphany.

The Things You Least Expect
By Joan Vail Thorne
Directed by David Saint
Cast: Pamela Payton-Wright, Mary Beth Peil, Curtis Mark Williams, Jessica Dickey
Set Design: Michael Anania
Costume Design: David Murin
Lighting and Sound Design by Chrisopher J. Bailey
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 732/246-7717,
From October 3. to 29; opening night: October 5, 2006
Tuesdays thru Saturdays, 8 PM Saturdays, at 2 PM -- $28 to $62) call Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance October 6

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