- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

NEW YORK — Harold and Edith are a couple of late bloomers in the romance department. These senior citizens find each other while fighting over a park bench, and what develops is "First Love," Charles Mee's oddball yet strangely affecting meditation on mutual attraction — and more.
This short, 90-minute play, at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop, is basically a dialogue about love: falling in, then out and finally back into that blissful state, tempered with a bit of reality the second time.
As a playwright, Mr. Mee is an acquired taste whose successes mostly have been confined to regional theater and off-off-Broadway. His writing sometimes feels academic, suited more for a lecture hall than a theater. Yet it often is juxtaposed with theatrical flights of fancy, loony diversions that entertain and make you laugh.
With "First Love," it helps that these would-be lovers are played by Frederick Neumann and Ruth Maleczech, two veterans of New York City's downtown theater scene. It also helps that the production is directed by Erin Mee, who happens to be the playwright's daughter.
Mr. Neumann, whose white mane seems perpetually untamed, fusses delightfully as his character finds himself drawn to the straight-talking, often abrasive Edith.
As the object of Harold's desire, Miss Maleczech, her red hair done up in braids wound around her head, is a weird mixture of Heidi and a New York longshoreman. She's brash, almost braying, yet her forthrightness is softened by a shy, girlish smile.
Both these previously married oldsters are unrepentant radicals from the 1960s and before. Just mentioning names such as Castro, Che, Danny the Red and Abbie Hoffman brings them closer together. "We lost a lot when we lost communism," Edith says sadly.
Mr. Mee matter-of-factly lays out their growing affection, almost as if the couple were debating the subject. The two actors disrobe to a degree not usually seen onstage by performers of their age.
"I think what brings people together is their common humanity and what pulls them apart is their separate histories," says Edith. Mr. Mee doesn't delve much into his characters' pasts, leaving audiences to wonder about what made them so lonely for so long. Tantalizing bits of their former lives are dropped into the story but then never explained.
Mr. Mee often peppers his plays with music, mostly pop standards. Here Mr. Neumann croaks his way through "You're the Cream in My Coffee," the DeSylva, Brown and Henderson classic. Miss Maleczech pretty much murders "Something's Gotta Give," the Johnny Mercer oldie that's been sung by everyone from the McGuire Sisters to Sammy Davis Jr. Somehow you don't mind all this off-key warbling. It's kind of endearing.
There's one obvious number in the show, "September Song," the Maxwell Anderson-Kurt Weill chestnut about making the most of one's last, precious days.
"First Love," played out on a weirdly surreal set that includes a leafless red tree, briefly features a third performer. Jennifer Hall is the personification of youth — first, as a recalcitrant waitress and then as an alluring songstress, who creamily delivers another Mercer hit, "Dream."
Harold finds himself infatuated with this nubile creature, which leads to a major break with Edith. "Sometimes you can't help it where your heart takes you," confesses Harold in trying to explain his straying. Mr. Mee seems to be saying the same thing, too, delivering his tale of "First Love" with a sense of wonderment and awe.


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