By: Isa Goldberg
January 14, 2024: An evocative set design (Robert Dutiel) places Alice Jankell’s new play, The Sweet Spot, in a dated New York City apartment, like those tucked away in aged buildings, untouched by real estate developers. But after 50 years of marriage, the awkward layout seems comfortable enough, and it’s been lived in respectfully.
It’s a great design concept, but in this small theater at 59E59 Theaters, it pushes the audience into the laps of the actors. Not a good situation for a traditional drama, performed to a fourth wall, and with a full house (the night I saw the show), the squeeze is on.
Regardless, the actors snare the story effortlessly. Joel Leffert’s Jerry, an aging husband, provides a sense of musicality to his character. It feels as though he’s speaking through a familiar melody, one they both know. If only she would follow his lead.
As his wife Vita, Nancy Nichols is a presence to acknowledge. How her age reveals her feminine beauty is, in and of itself, captivating. As husband and wife of so many years, their chemistry is perfunctory…easy, relaxed, and well adjusted. He being comedic holds the energy. She, however, remains supine, nearly indolent. Nichols, as we see here, is a master of the understatement.
Fortunately, their younger selves appear, stirring the action, giving perspective, showing the audience their history together. Not always an easy one mind you…his affair, her infatuation, his career, their children … it all gives them ample to argue about, and they do.
That their youthful selves literally run circles around their aged selves, is the saving grace of this 90-minute theater piece. Surprising and unexpected, these scenes lift the production.
As young Vita, Tasha Milkman is a fetching young woman, with a depth of emotional range. And Gabriel Rysdahl as her young husband is sweet enough, and inexperienced in a way that begs for contrast with his older self.
To some extent, we can see that these early brushes with marital conflict shape the older Jerry. But it doesn’t matter much, because as elderly people they’re pretty boring, their lives are frustrating to watch, and their tempo is slow.
They do have an active sex life, as they report it, but if you’ve watched television in recent years, it just looks quaint. Their sexual feelings are too truthful, and implicit, by comparison.
Like a one note song, the production leaves the audience wanting for something to break through, but nothing does. The action focuses on a central conflict – Jerry’s wish to move into assisted living, and Nancy’s aversion to it. Little else moves in or out of the dialogue, save the birth of a great grandchild. But this too, sadly, underlines the distance between birth and old age.
While the play is not about living independently, or otherwise, the repetitive conversation doesn’t give the audience enough information to discover what binds these two people together, and how fifty years of marriage has affected them.
What really keeps them going, and why their love making remains so meaningful to them feels undermined by the absence of more interesting, well woven, and nuanced story telling. Even the connections between the young couple and the older pair are detached…waiting for the audience to make the connection.
And it’s not always easy to do, as when Young Vita fights with Young Jerry about his so-called business dinner plans, leaving her to stay home with the children. And in the following scene, the now elderly Vita, quietly announces her wish to stay in the city so they can make dinner plans with friends.
The audience sees that the argument has been consolidated into their long lives, and how it may fester, and maybe fuel a reconciliation, as it does eventually here. But it falls short at making the emotional connection between a distraught young wife, and her elderly self.
As directed by Page Clements, the action feels as slow as the elderly, addled with nowhere to go, not much to say, but with a need to say it again, and again.
As costumed by Debbi Hobson, old Jerry’s worn Janice Joplin tea shirt is a vividly suggestive element. It tells us who Jerry would have been (in his dreams), and how sweetly he landed.
Moments of familiarity between an older couple – a glance, a touch – sparked truthfully, make the production worth the visit.
The Sweet Spot **1/2
American Bard Theater Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street, NYC
Through January 27, 2024
Tickets online and current performance schedule: 59E59.org
Photography: Basil Rodericks