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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Anita Domnitz as Carol and Michael Weber as Ralph in The Boulevard Theater's production of "The Last Romance."
Anita Domnitz as Carol and Michael Weber as Ralph in The Boulevard Theater's production of "The Last Romance." (Photo: Tony Freund)

"The Last Romance" doesn't satisfy

The first question to ponder is whether great actors can lift a weak play into a satisfying night at the theater. The answer is yes, if the acting is truly outstanding.

The second question is whether a really good play can overcome weak acting to make a satisfying night at the theater. The answer to that is, unquestionably, "no."

And sadly, that’s what’s happening at The Boulevard Theatre where director Mark Bucher unveiled a shaky production of "The Last Romance," a romantic comedy written by Joe DiPietro about two senior citizens who fall in love.

The two characters, Ralph and Carol, meet at a dog park. He hits on her and she hesitatingly begins to meet him halfway in his quest. His wife died, her husband had a stroke. They take small steps toward each other, battling memories, histories, the aches and pains of old age and the possessive love of Ralph’s sister Rose, who lives with him and cooks his meals and does his wash and cleans his house.

They almost fall in love, but like all good stories, a giant roadblock appears and they go their separate ways. This play is funny and touching. Ralph has a lot of the funny lines and Michael Weber, who plays Ralph, has a bit of a knack for delivering the joke lines.

But other than that little part of the evening, that is just about all that the actors bring to this show.

The task of the actor is to give life to the words on the pages of the script. An actor is supposed to make an audience believe the words, be moved by them, to laugh, cry or shudder. This production has a young man named Doug Clemons who has a marvelous tenor. He is supposed to be the young Ralph, who wanted to be an opera singer and Clemons does a wonderful job with snippets of various arias.

But after him, we are left with an overwhelming feeling of what the heck happend to the play we thought we were going to see.

There is one moment toward the end of the play that best sums the bizarre problems created by actors who don’t seem to get it.

Rose and her brother are talking toward the end of the play and the written script leads Rose to say something and Ralph to shout at her, "Calm down. Calm down." You can be forgiven for shaking your head in wonder, because Rose never showed anything that even resembled behavior that would spawn a "calm down" plea.

Let’s take these characters one by one.

Rose is a character who demands some subtlety and some layers that both hide and reveal this weird relationship she has with her brother. Barbara Weber manages to turn her into a shrill simpleton. When they share a bench, she leans in and pushes her bosom into her brother. It kind of makes your skin creep.

Carol is a woman with a secret that makes her very wary of this strange man she met in a park. But we get no sense of anything from Domnitz other than a juvenile set of reactions that seem more appropriate to a 12-year old in a chat room with her friends than to a 65-year old mother of two daughters and grandmother to five kids. Somewhere in Carol there is a river of warmth and a fractured brittleness, but we see nothing like that from Domnitz.

Ralph, played by Weber, comes off more as a dolt who has suffered some kind of irreversible brain damage that turned him into a lecherous, sad, lonely and befuddled bobblehead. There is absolutely nothing interesting about Ralph, so we are left to wonder why in the world Domnitz would ever fall for him.

Another problem with this play is the casting. Neither Weber nor Domnitz look like they are in their 60’s. And in a space as intimate as the Boulevard, that becomes an incredible problem.

DiPietro wrote this play for Marion Ross, who played Mrs. Cunningham on "Happy Days and her husband." They toured extensively and the play got both popular attention and good critical reviews.

It makes you wish that some of the older actors in Milwaukee had been tapped for this production. There are a number of them who could have really brought this play to the place it deserves to be.

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