Chocolate Hearts at the Slate

Chocolate Hearts at the Slate
You don’t see a lot of plays about characters at the end of an arc. Or at least that’s not where they start out. Everyone does seem to start there though in all three plays by John Ruoff going under the title Chocolate Hearts, produced by James Oliver Burrows’ World Stage now playing at the Slate.
In Confessions of the Cocoa Luna, three Americans have run away to Costa Rica late in life after things have hit dead ends. One is almost literally sleepwalking in the cabana while the other two, played by John Murray and Connie Murray, look back and forth between the moon and their regrets.
Murray and Murray basically reprise their roles in the second play, the eponymous Chocolate Hearts. Connie as two-time widow Meg becomes a sort of late-middle-age manic pixie dream girl who snaps John Murray as dentist Dr. Doug Smile (really) out of his funk. They meet in a cemetery where Doug has come to visit his wife’s grave. There is a sweet moment at the end where the doctor uses his dental incisiveness to uncover Meg’s scheme.
Ruoff writes dense, witty dialogue with plenty of humor and flat out jokes mixed into the repartee. When the actors get going it sort of sweeps you away. And they really get going in the third play, Bitter Sweet.
But at first, the dialogue has to wait. Bitter Sweet opens with a show within the show, a ten-minute silent clown act by Finney and Feeney, a vaudeville comedy team. Leah Carrell as Finney and David Hayes as Feeny pull it off wonderfully, stealing each other’s hats, fooling around with a cigar and a cigarette lighter such that neither one ever has both. Feeny chases after a staggering Finney with a beach chair, trying (and failing) to make sure she lands in it instead of on the ground. It’s pure physical comedy and I demand to see more of it!
The show takes off when the clown act ends and the pair are backstage afterward. Finney has refused to take a bow at the end of the show. Feeny confronts her and that leads the two to talking about what they have been doing all these years as a team, and what kind of team are they anyway. Finney wants out. Feeny is stuck.
Hayes and Carrell take Ruoff’s dialogue and make it so real. With all of the jokes and zingers and banter, it could have been easy to lose the depth of what’s really going on between the two. But the actors keep all of the comedy and all of the heart. By the end, it’s clear what will become of the vaudeville act. It’s at the end of its arc. But maybe a new one is beginning?
Bitter Sweet is a gem. I think it could really go places. See it now so you can say you saw it when.

Originally published on my Facebook page on September 14, 2018.

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