“Tell Them I’m Still Young” — a new play by Julia Doolittle that the American Theater Group is currently presenting, in its world premiere, at the South Orange Performing Arts Center — has a remarkable final scene featuring its two primary characters, Allen (played by two-time Emmy winner Andre Braugher) and his wife Kay (played Tony winner Michele Pawk). The bad news is that the scene, which brings the bond behind Allen and Kay’s long marriage into focus, doesn’t seem to develop organically from the rest of the play, in which the spouses seem to live in their own worlds.
Before this scene, Allen, a history professor and author, is portrayed as distant and grumpy; Kay, a poet, is garrulous but also acid-tongued and resentful. Whatever made their marriage work, at some point, seems long gone.
They have a good reason to be hard on themselves, and others. We find out, early on, that their daughter recently died in a car crash. So they’re wounded, going through the motions of life while still reeling.
Two younger characters come into their lives during the course of the play.
Kay forms a bond with Seth (Seth Clayton), a musician who had had a “casual, ambiguous” love affair with her daughter. He’s haunted by the fact that he didn’t have the guts to make the relationship more serious. Nevertheless, it seems to be healing for Kay to be around this young man who had been part of her daughter’s life, in some way. Seth visits Kay and Allen at the house in the Philadelphia suburbs where they live (and Allen pretty much ignores him); later, Kay extends a trip to New York so she can see him perform with his band.
Meanwhile, Allen begins working with a new research assistant, Taylor (Janice Amaya), who seems to idolize him and want him to be a father figure for her. But we eventually learn she has serious problems of her own that make it hard for Allen to lose himself in his work, the way he wants to.
These two platonic relationships — Kay with Seth, Allen with Taylor — dominate the play until that final scene, which brings the “Tell Them I’m Still Young” back to Kay and Allen, together, as a couple. That’s a messy construction. Now of course, life can be messy, so the play does ring true, in that sense. But in dramatic terms, the final scene seems to come out of nowhere, and that robs it of some of the power it would otherwise have. And there’s nothing that Braugher and Pawk, seasoned pros that they are — or director Kel Haney, for that matter — can do about it.
“Tell Them I’m Still Young” will run at the South Orange Performing Arts Center through Feb. 3. Visit sopacnow.org.
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