A senior living community? “That’s just a nice way of saying ‘old age home,’” scoffs Angelina.
Her husband Morty replies, hopefully, “I hear they have golf.”
The aging couple is peering at Riverdale Manor, a retirement community in New York. What would it be like to live there? Turns out there’s a lot going on.
In the ensemble comedy “Senior Living,” by Tor Hyams and Lisa St. Lou, we see that life’s vicissitudes don’t stop after retirement. Onstage now in its world premiere at Portland Stage Company, “Senior Living” opens a window onto the lives of its residents as they consider how to live out their remaining time.
How to find sex after 65? Should you get a divorce after 50 years of marriage? Is the doctor’s incompetence killing all your neighbors? Which senior community has the best rice pudding? Through a series of vignettes, “Senior Living” presents a range of quirky and likable characters as they grapple with questions big and small – and as they prepare for a community talent show.
Judith Ivey directs an affectionate world premiere of this gentle comedy. Originally slated to run a year ago, “Senior Living” explores some heavy questions but keeps things light and even silly.
The show’s sequence of scenes interweaves the threads of about 20 characters in and around Riverdale Manor, often on its stately brick patio with manicured topiary (David Goldstein’s fine set design, which employs sliding doors for indoor scenes). One resident, a slim, well-coiffed woman with a sensuous drawl (Beth Glover), announces to a man on the opposite bench (David Wohl) that she wants to have sex again. A lesbian couple (Cynthia Barnett and Grace Bauer, with fun comic timing) in coordinating tracksuits consider recent deaths and bad doctors as they practice their baton act. A man recently diagnosed with dementia (Steve Vinovich) deals with it by trying to make his serious therapist (Glover) laugh.
And the acts from the talent show provide another narrative thread, as the characters’ stories are interspersed with their sincere and sweetly mediocre performances. The women perform their baton act. An aging showgirl (Glover) dances and sings an actually pretty sharp burlesque number. A former math professor (Wohl) performs a delightfully self-deprecating soft-shoe routine, punctuated by deadpan jokes at the expense of his own dancing. These talent show scenes appear outside of linear time, as previews of the evening toward which everyone is converging. This plotting lets the show meander but sustains a strong center of gravity and sense of momentum.
The cast, each of which plays between three and five roles, moves through these vignettes with great grace, nuance, and compassion, nicely balancing emotion and comedy. They also transform between characters and moods so nimbly (and with the help of great wig and costume changes) that for a while I lost track of how many actors are in the show.
Hyams’ and St. Lou’s script revels in simplicity, sweetness, and a healthy dose of schtick, and it mostly keeps things broad and literal. But peppering that easy-listening theatrical style are a few choice lines of zing and poetry.
A jovial gay man (Vinovich), poking fun at himself with a new golf partner (Barnett), remarks that a friend once admonished him, “Gays shouldn’t golf. It’s bad for the rainbow.” A woman in a wheelchair (Barnett) announces that she can’t stand her husband’s “licking and lapping” of his morning coffee spoon, repeating this alliterative offense at least five times.
For all its comedy, “Senior Living” manages to touch on very real issues, and it includes a range of perspectives (although all of the residents appear to be white). The gay golfer’s domestic partner (Wohl) resists having his grandson join them for Pride Week because he’s uncomfortable with him being gay – he doesn’t want him to have as hard a life as he’s had. The burlesque dancer refuses to tell the doctor her age and later agonizes over losing “It,” which has always defined her. The therapist gets called out bluntly by her sister, one of the baton twirlers (Barnett), for taking care of everyone but herself.
One of my favorite characters is Vinovich’s would-be comic with dementia, whose name is Richard. His is a particularly nuanced portrait in both script and performance; although his legs bounce nervously as he talks with his therapist, his face is wide open with an easy smile. But the very sound of the word “dementia” makes him cry out involuntarily before he instantly turns back to the therapist with a smile and a hopeful joke.
Later, in the talent show, Richard’s stand-up routine – about dementia – is strikingly modest and generous. He’s telling his fraught jokes not to be seen or out of vanity, and not for himself – or at least not just for himself. His comedy feels like an offering, an invitation, and an embrace.
In that, it’s an emblem of “Senior Living” itself, a show that opens doors, laughs, and listens.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
• Raring to go down a rabbit hole? This week brings the world premiere of the new surrealist comedy “Waiting for Alice,” which runs Feb. 3-27 at Mad Horse Theatre Company in South Portland. Written by local playwright and Mad Horse company member Allison McCall, the show imagines Wonderland’s creatures as they get ready for their famous visitor. FMI: https://www.madhorse.com. And to celebrate the opening, McCall will be featured in the first Mechanics’ Hall Author Talk of 2022 in Portland. Tickets and FMI: https://bit.ly/3ocMtat.
• More surrealism, set 2 billion years from now, comes to SPACE in Portland next week in the Feb. 9 screening of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s 2020 film “Last and First Men.” Based on a cult sci-fi novel from the 1930s and narrated by Tilda Swinton, the film presents future humans on the verge of extinction with only their old monuments poised to endure. FMI: www.space538.org.
• And if you’d prefer to lighten things up considerably, snuggle up with Jane Austen, and add music, consider a new musical spin on “Pride and Prejudice“ called “I Love You Because.” The romantic comedy runs at The Players’ Ring in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Feb. 4-20. FMI: www.playersring.org.
— Megan Grumbling