Life begins at eighty or so for the two lead characters in The Last Romance, Joe DiPietro’s charming, funny, andvery romantic new comedy now in its West Coast Premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Like DiPietro’s earlier Over The River And Through The Woods, The Last Romance offers some of the best comedic roles ever for septuagenarian and even octogenarian actors, and was written especially for two of them, Marion Ross of TV’s Happy Days fame and WWII vet Paul Michael, her real life partner.

What would a romantic comedy be without its “meet cute,” this one taking place soon after a quarrel between elderly siblings? 

“Since when do you leave the house without telling me?” barks an angry gray-haired lady at the elderly man sitting on a park bench, autumn leaves in the trees above him and at his feet. Noticing the man’s outfit, the lady demands to know why he’s wearing his Banana Republic shirt in a filthy place like this, and more importantly, “Who are you meeting?” “Nobody you know,” replies the man curtly, and promises to be back home in twenty minutes.

Soon after the old lady’s exit, a similarly aged but considerably more youthful and elegantly dressed redheaded woman arrives, leash in hand.  “Run and play,” she calls out to a dog somewhere in the distance. “Mommy’s right here.”  

The elderly gent begins to chat her up.  “Do you like opera?” he asks. “Are you speaking to me?” she responds icily. “What about rap music?” he continues, and performs a snippet of hip hop, body language and all:  “What you gonna do with all that junk? With all that junk, in your trunk?”

The man introduces himself as Ralph, a retired railroad worker who once auditioned for the Met.  “I’m Carol,” answers the woman in a way that indicates she’d like to end the conversation here and now. Persistent type that he is, Ralph asks Carol what kind of dog she owns. “A Chihuahua mix,” she responds, to which Ralph replies that the “scrawny” mutt “looks like a rat who can bark,” clearly not what Carol wants to hear. Seeing a dog in the distance, Ralph pretends it’s his, calling out, “Jump up and down, Rex!”

“Can I sit closer to you?” Ralph asks Carol, rather boldly for a stranger. “You’re coming on to me!” gasps the object of his attention, her outraged expression making it clear that Ralph’s pickup lines are not hitting their target.  “You can tell me tomorrow if your husband is dead or you’re divorced,” he goes on with a wink, and then with obvious sincerity, “You’re just the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in 20 years.”

And Carol runs away.

Anyone doubting Carol’s return to the dog park has never seen a romantic comedy before, and The Last Romance is not only romantic but laugh-out-loud funny to boot. It’s also a moving look at loneliness and aging (“What if I develop feelings for you, and you die?” wonders Carol at one point) and hope and second chances in equal measure. 

Under Richard Seer’s brisk and breezy direction, Ross and Michael simply couldn’t be better or more endearing in their roles. It’s a pleasure to watch brittle, proper Carol begin to turn to mush in Ralph’s hands and equally fun to see eighty-three-year-old Ralph as smitten as a boy of sixteen.  That the real-life couple have great chemistry together goes without saying.  That two eighty-plus performers have learned and mastered as many lines as would challenge actors one quarter their age deserves mention, and a round of applause.

Supporting them as Ralph’s embittered but loving, caring sister Rose is the marvelously grumpy Patricia Conolly, whom DiPietro has given her own quite touching storyline as well.  Joshua Jeremiah plays a young Ralph, the majority of his role composed of arias sung to perfection by the gifted operatic baritone. 

This reviewer did wonder why Ralph at twenty speaks with a pronounced Italian accent and at eighty-three with none whatsoever. (Virtually no one with an accent past the age of eighteen is likely to lose it later in life, even with practice.) Other than that, there are no nits to pick with this perfectly wonderful play and production.

Alexander Dodge’s splendid in-the-round scenic design has autumn leaves suspended above the audience and stage, fallen leaves below, a park bench center stage, and notes from an operatic score painted where grass would normally grow. Charlotte Devaux’s costumes reflect precisely the fashion choices of each character, from Carol’s prim and proper chic to Ralph’s grandfatherly jackets and ties to Rose’s frumpy unchic.  Chris Rynne’s lighting design bathes the stage in an autumnal glow. Paul Peterson’s sound design lets us close our eyes and believe we are in an honest-to-goodness dog park. Lavinia Henley works behind the scenes as stage manager. 

Filled with laughs galore and a few tears as well, The Last Romance is a welcome summer arrival at The Old Globe, and one sure to captivate and delight audiences from eighteen to eighty … and beyond.

Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
August 8, 2010
                                                                                         Photos: Craig Schwartz

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