There’s no age limit on love in Joe DiPietro’s charming, funny, and very romantic The Last Romance, now getting a rather good Los Angeles Premiere at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40.

 Like just about every romcom couple past, present, or future, eighty-year-old Ralph (Howard Sttom) and 70ish Carol (Mariko Van Kampen) “meet cute,” in this case soon after a quarrel between the octogenarian and his slightly younger sister Rose (Dorothy Sinclair).

What sets Rose off this time (and you can tell it’s not the first time she’s had words with him) is finding Ralph seated in the neighborhood dog park without any logical reason for being there. Even worse, not only has Ralph left their northern New Jersey home without telling her, he’s wearing his good Banana Republic shirt in the “filthy” park (her words, not mine). “Who are you meeting?” she barks. “Nobody you know,” Ralph replies curtly, and promises to be back home in twenty minutes.

We soon discover the petless Ralph’s choice of parks when a beautiful, somewhat younger woman arrives, leash in hand. “Run and play,” she calls out to a dog somewhere in the distance. “Mommy’s right here.”

Like a man with a mission half his age, Ralph 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, b-boy moves and all: “What you gonna do with all that junk? With all that junk, in your trunk?”

Despite the woman’s obvious (or at least apparent) lack of interest, Ralph introduces himself as 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, and a perfect choice for Theatre 40’s over-70 regulars.

Like DiPietro’s earlier Over The River And Through The Woods, The Last Romance offers some terrific comedic roles for actors long past the age of retirement, roles which, under James Paradise’s competent though not particularly inspired direction, T40’s cast almost do justice to.

 Storm’s list of imdb credits reveals him to have been one of TV’s busiest sitcom directors in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and his work in The Last Romance proves the small-screen vet to be as adept in front of a live audience as he was behind the camera. A dry delivery and expert comic timing make Storm’s Ralph a delight from start to finish, and he brings just the right warmth and poignancy to the role as well.

As the object of our hero’s affections, Van Kampen has the beauty to turn a the eye of a man half Ralph’s age, and she does well when bantering and battling with Storm in the play’s lighter scenes. Where the actress needs to dig considerably deeper are in the play’s more emotional moments, where tears don’t come as they should, whether of joy and relief or in desperation at seeing her last chance at romance on the verge of slipping through her fingers.

Sinclair is rather good too as Ralph’s clinging younger sister Rose, though less whininess and greater steel would make for a stronger overall performance.

 Completing the cast is 20ish Matthew Ian Welch as “Young Ralph,” whose gorgeous operatic baritone comes as quite a surprise from a sandy-haired boy-next-door you’d expect, at first glance, to be following in Justin Bieber’s footsteps rather than Robert Merrill’s. Not does Welch sing extraordinarily well, he shows off fine acting chops in a flashback to Ralph’s audition at the Met, and is quite believable as Storm’s younger self.

The Last Romance is performed on a pair of park benches in front of black curtains, with other pieces of furniture added when Act Two takes us to additional locales. (Jeff G. Rack is design consultant.) Ric Zimmerman’s excellent lighting goes quite a ways towards making up for the production’s minimal scenic design, while Bill Froggatt’s sound design not only helps to convince us we’re in a dog park (with barks coming from precisely the right part of the park) but provides instrumental backup for Welch’s solos. Costume Michèle Young deserves high marks for the production’s menswear and Rose’s dowdy outfits, though Carol’s pride in never once having worn slacks to work suggest a woman unlikely to break with that habit even post-retirement, even in a dog park.

 Having fallen in love with The Last Romance in its 2010 West Coast Premiere (with Marion Ross and her now deceased life partner Paul Michael starring in the roles DiPietro wrote for them), I was hoping it would be every bit as wonderful the second time around. Theatre 40’s L.A. premiere is for the most part quite entertaining, but as my first experience with The Last Romance made clear to me, it could have been even more.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
December 3, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger
Headshot by Bradford Rogne

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