by Mike Hoban
The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion – Written by Alan Brody, Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Scenic Design by Steven Royal; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by John Malinowski; Sound Design by Nathan Leigh; Choreography by Marlena Yanetti and Felton Sparks. Presented by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge through July 2.
Is it possible to fall in love for the first time long after AARP has begun mailing you membership offers? That’s the question that Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion, the superb comic drama now having its world premiere at the Central Square Theater, seems to be asking. This thoughtful and very funny play takes one of life’s ridiculously emotionally trying rituals and uses it as a springboard for an unlikely but utterly charming love story. It also sends up all the awkward moments one encounters at the oft-dreaded high school reunion (crushes revealed, not remembering friend’s names, feigned interest in other’s lives) while cleverly inserting backstory for the characters via a series of revealing flashbacks.
As the play opens, Tom Terres (Gordon Clapp of NYPD Blue fame) is working his way through the crowded gymnasium dance floor, exchanging quips and pleasantries with his long-lost classmates from the Class of 1954. Tom, who now owns and operates a bookstore in Maine, was not one of the popular kids in school, and 50 years after graduation, the conversation with the old classmates is as polite and stilted as you’d expect, as playwright Alan Brody captures the ordinariness of it all beautifully. (Not surprisingly, half of the class seems to have moved to Florida.)
Enter Bettina Belknap, who despite being class valedictorian and a “looker” to boot, never attended her own prom or any of the previous reunions. She’s now a neuroscientist, and like Tom, divorced. The two meet for the first time (although Tom knew of the more popular Bettina from school days) and share drinks and stories, but when one goes to get a fresh round of drinks or steps away from the conversation, we are presented with a flashback that provides the real insight into the characters. As we peek into the windows of their lives (Bettina’s “de-flowering” by a local cad, scenes with former spouses/love interests and other significant figures) one thing becomes clear, both Tom and Bettina are certainly capable of experiencing deep love – but only for their jobs. Tom loves books as much as Bettina loves her work, so there isn’t much room for either of them to develop loving relationships with actual humans. Or is there?
The scenes from the high school reunion are played almost entirely as straight comedy, delivering the kind of laughs that come from identifying with the discomfort of making small talk with people we barely know (other than Tom and Bettina, the people at the reunion are actually invisible to us, with Tom and Bettina carrying on one-sided conversations) as well as the overall goofiness associated with such affairs. But the flashbacks are another story, functioning as well-constructed mini-dramas that give the characters real depth. There is a mean girl-lite scene where Tom, as a high schooler in the library, is told by a more popular girl who just can’t fathom his reflective lifestyle. “It’s peculiar not to be upset about being popular,” she tells him. “That’s why (the other kids) think you’re a communist.” The putdown is fairly inspired, as it reflects the 1950’s era perfectly, but the intent behind is a reminder that haves and have nots caste system in high school hasn’t changed much over six decades.
But at its heart, “Fiftieth Reunion” is still a love story rather than social commentary. It’s a lot of fun to watch the two 68 year olds falling for each other, especially when they consider entering the dance contest to determine who the king and queen of the reunion will be, and the symbolic second chance many of us want in life materializes. Deborah Wise is terrific as the aging beauty with a brain (her academic advisor tries to dissuade her from her chosen field – saying essentially that “girls can’t do hard science” but offers solace by remarking on her good looks), as she subtly lets her insecurities bleed through her outward strengths. Clapper is equally good as Tom, displaying a quiet confidence in himself despite not meeting the typical metrics for success.
Matthew Zahnzinger and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard also deliver outstanding performances in multiple roles during the flashback sequences. Bedard follows up last winter’s noteworthy turn in Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges (also at the Nora Theatre) with another impressive showing in three roles as Tom’s ex-wife, the mean girl, and Tom’s smitten assistant; and Zahnzinger continues to build his reputation as one of Boston’s finest young actors, excelling in particular – oddly enough – at playing older characters (such as Salieri in Amadeus, for which he won an IRNE last year) including Bettina’s sexist academic advisor, her aging husband, as well as the teenage lothario. Lee Mikeska Gardner does a marvelous job of directing, seamlessly integrating the dramatic and the comic elements – no easy trick, especially with a new work.
This is a really solid new work by Brody, and should be widely produced in the coming years. See it for yourself. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/