- Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- Charlotte Munson and Jordan Gullikson
In real life, it's hard to know for sure if a particular person will turn out to be one's true love. In romantic comedies, the question is answered for the audience as soon as two characters start talking. But playwright Audrey Cefaly tries a new spin on the form in The Last Wide Open, bending the storytelling structure to show four variations on what could happen to her protagonists. The well-acted Vermont Stage production of her new play demonstrates that love isn't inevitable just because the viewer is expecting it.
Lina and Roberto have worked together for years as waiter and busboy in an Italian restaurant, but they barely know each other. Roberto emigrated from Italy and doesn't speak English well; Lina hoped to become a nurse but has settled for waitressing. One night, as they're closing up and a thunderstorm approaches, they talk.
Sparks don't fly as much as attitudes do. Lina is fiercely funny and faces life's disappointments with wit. Roberto is a hopeful soul uncertain about American culture. They share stories about the day they've had. A caller has to be told the restaurant is closed. Then they open up enough to reveal a bit about their experiences with love.
Lina is a little high-strung. Roberto is a little shy. Neither hits the tone that will bring out the other, but between the pauses they almost connect. To emphasize the artifice of the play, a stage manager equipped with a headset and a supply of props and costumes pops up exactly when needed to provide what's missing and whisk away clutter. He's also responsible for handing out Lina's ukulele and Roberto's guitar — both occasionally break into song.
Then they try again. The actors step out of the frame of the play to announce they're having another go, and later, another. The conditions are the same: thunderstorm, phone call, closing up the restaurant. But Roberto and Lina themselves are in different states. Roberto might know more English, or less. Lina might be about to get married or be bitter about an affair. It may be a month since they first met, or five years, or 15. The play begins to show what might need to change for the pair to be open to romance.
Director Jamien Forrest lets the play unfold breezily, with a pace that's unforced even as new variations complicate the story. The play is more about depicting the fragility of starting a romance than serving up a schmaltzy one. Emphasizing pauses and verbal stutter-steps, Forrest keeps attention on the connections the characters are not quite able to complete. Not rushing things allows the humor lots of room to bloom.
Charlotte Munson plays Lina as everybody's slightly crazy best friend. Her moods have a hyperbolic intensity, almost as if Lina is trying out various emotional worst cases. She can get weepy while mopping or launch into way-too-cheerful wedding planning. If Lina made a pie chart to explain herself, only a 5 percent slice would represent vulnerability, but that slice would be highlighted. She tugs at her skirt when ashamed, then flashes a bright, brave smile. Munson is quick to find humor in a line or a circumstance.
Jordan Gullikson portrays Roberto as frozen in quiet wonder at the world around him, especially Lina. He can be enthusiastic but is quick to hide it before he calls too much attention to himself. Gullikson makes Roberto's immigrant status the most important thing about him, reflected not only in his accent and command of English, but in a strategy of seeking the shadows so he's not put on the spot. His curiosity about both Lina and America frames him with heartwarming innocence.
The two actors have nice singing voices and are particularly well matched in their occasional duets. Besides being musically lovely, their harmonies are another of those sure signs that they belong together.
The set is a richly detailed trattoria with overhanging beams, pendant lights and arched windows in a brick wall. Scenic designer Jeff Modereger creates zones for action with a raised platform for the bar and a wide, tiled step down into the charming eatery's seating area.
Lighting designer Joe Cabrera uses the live fixtures above the tables plus the theatrical lights to mark each change in mood. When the storm knocks out the power, he has bravura moonlight waiting. The lighting choices fit the moments well, but some of them lead the action rather than follow it, tipping us off to a change ahead. The professional polish of the lighting design, however, is truly magical.
Costume designer Rébecca Lafon makes subtle statements about the tenor of each variation in the story using color changes in the waitstaff uniforms and the characters' personal clothing. The act of changing clothes right onstage puts each variation in a nice frame, and Lafon gets the most impact out of the fast, big transformations.
Juls Sundberg, the play's actual assistant stage manager, plays the onstage Stagehand with physical precision and just enough dry wit.
A romantic comedy has only one place to go. Audiences don't mind, because the format lets them project their own situation into the story and find signs that love is waiting out there. The trick is making the inevitable ending a surprise. Cefaly's meta-theatrical script lets the audience doubt the outcome and wonder if these two souls will ever manage to connect. The actors give the characters the warmth and humor they need; all that's left is risking a kiss.