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'Kalamazoo' hits the comic highs, lows of late-life romance

To close out its strong 2016-17 season, New Phoenix Theatre is presenting a show that is the stage equivalent of light dessert. “Kalamazoo” is a comedy of later-life romance, starring a mismatched pair of widowed adults who find common ground in their philosophy of life.

Nothing deep is happening here, at least not the way that Peg and Irving are conceived by playwrights Michelle Kholos Brooks and Kelly Younger. No Sturm und Drang, just a man and a woman trying to figure out what to do next.

The show opens with the characters reading from their online dating profiles --- both have been pushed into “getting out there” by their grown children. Peg, brightly played by Betsy Bittar, likes birds; Irving, portrayed with pragmatic honesty by Marc-Jon Filippone, wants a woman who doesn’t have cancer.

That's it. Otherwise we have little clue as to why the Silver Foxes Dating Service would match Peg, a devout Catholic, with Irving, an observant Jew.

They decide to meet at a Mexican restaurant and the one-liners start to fly, with some hits and some cornier than the chips. To the actors’ credit, they do an entertaining job delivering lines that are surprisingly insensitive coming from 60-ish mature adults. Even so, Peg’s rude joke about Jews making crosses is painful, and Irving going from 0 to 60 in bringing up the possibility of having sex seems to come from out of the blue.

A few bowls of tequila later, though, we cut to the next scene, where the two are waking up together in a hotel room. This is solid sitcom territory, with the hungover couple unsure of whether the relationship was consummated, or even knowing how they got there. The problem is, the audience doesn’t know how they would have gotten there, either, judging by where we left off. Trying not to be too inhibited is one thing. Getting blind drunk and blacking out is another, and that doesn't seem to be Peg's or Irving’s style.

Nevertheless, Bittar and Filippone are impressive in turning the couple’s drunken encounter into the start of a true romance. The trouble is, all the really good action happens off-stage; we only hear about it later: The arguments with their children, their first-date embarrassment, followed by the fear of being dumped or rejected.

Then, suddenly the relationship takes another warp-speed turn, and off we go again, fast-forwarding to a well-telegraphed conclusion.

Unlike other excellent recent New Phoenix productions, like “Of Mice & Men,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “Harvey” and “Judgment at Nuremburg,” “Kalamazoo” won’t be appearing on any student reading lists or in movie theaters. But plays like this aren't written to survive the test of time.

“Kalamazoo” is among those breezy little shows that invite you to spend an hour or two with a couple of people who you'll like, and to share their stories. These folks might even remind you of someone --- a friend, a parent, a loved one – which is part of the charm.

Under the direction of Sheila McCarthy and with clever stage design by John Kehoe and Sam Crystal's props, Bittar and Filippone are so well-matched as Betsy and Irving, it makes us wish them a second chance at happiness. After all, it's spring.



2.5 stars (out of four)

When: Through May 27

Where: New Phoenix Theatre Company, 95 Johnson Park

Tickets: $30 general, $20 students, seniors and professional courtesy. Thursday performances are pay-what-you-can.

Info: 853-1334,

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