Is late-in-life online dating very different from earlier-in-life online dating? Meeting on the Internet can be a harrowing experience at any age. People strive to show their best selves online. They must answer personal questions about themselves and what kind of mate they are looking for all at once, when these things would come out gradually in a more organic setting, like meeting in a social circle of some kind. People worry they won’t be liked or won’t like the other person, or that they won’t have enough in common to sustain conversation for more than five minutes. There is comedy and tragedy in this process for people of all ages.
So it is with Peg and Irving in “Kalamazoo,” by Michelle Kholos Brooks and Kelly Youngery, at the New Phoenix Theatre, directed by Sheila McCarthy. Two grandparents take the plunge into the cyber world of online dating after both of their spouses of many years have died. Peg (Betsy Bittar) is a very conservative, Irish-American Catholic, while Irving (Marc-Jon Filippone) is a liberal Jewish-American man whose ancestors hail from an Eastern Europe shtetl. What they have in common is that they are both lonely, miss their spouses, and are pressured into dating by their children.
The play opens with each filling out a questionnaire for the Silver Fox dating site. She loves birds, particularly when they are molting, and is open to meeting anyone, but “no Jews.” He wants to date a shiksa because he never has and so he can find out what the Holy Ghost is all about. They alternately answer the dating site questions while perched on pub chairs in the middle of an almost empty stage. Their meetings, separations, arguments, world views, family issues, desires and budding romance comprise the remainder of this short play of ninety-five minutes, including intermission.
The play contains many very good moments of humor, compassion for the human condition, and how exciting and difficult it can be to fall in love and to take off our masks so we can see and be seen for who we really are. Peg’s monologue about never being allowed to make her own decisions is very touching, as is Irving’s about his wife’s death from cancer. There are a few cliché moments about older people that jarred, one having to do with the meaning of “friends with benefits,” and several others. On the other hand, Peg’s malapropisms are very funny – Carpet Diem, being one of them – without making fun of her.
The performance of Ms. Bittar had a rather cartoonish quality that detracted from her portrayal of Peg, and made her seem ridiculous at times. Whether this was by direction or choice, it did not add to the enjoyment of the play. Ms. Bittar was at her best when she toned it down and allowed her character to be more genuine and have a more authentic quality, which she did at times throughout the play. Mr. Filippone was more on point with Irving, portraying a man who loved his wife but was ready to meet someone new, in order to have an adventure and, hopefully, sex.
The play is appealing in how it depicts older strangers becoming lovers, the issues that come up around their families’ acceptance (or lack thereof) of their relationship, and how they navigate all of that and find their way into each other’s lives in a way that works for them.
The set, designed by John Kehoe, is simple, which keeps the action centered on Peg and Irving. Lighting and Sound are by Chris Cavanaugh; Costumes by Kelli Bocock-Natale; Props by Sam Crystal.
Kalamazoo plays Thursdays (pay-what-you-can night), Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00pm through May 27 at the New Phoenix Theatre.