In the Syracuse New Times beat, no original playwright commands more attention than artistic director Rachel Lampert of Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company. Writers of interactive comedies might be more prolific, but Lampert has been the most widely acclaimed and the most versatile: comedies, dramas, musicals and ballets. Lampert’s The Soup Comes Last went to New York City where the scribe from the New York Times concurred with the praise from the Syracuse New Times.
Her current world premiere, Waiting for Spring, directed by Barry Kleinbort, is billed as a musical, in which Lampert’s words are sung to Larry Pressgrove’s score. From a distance it looks like a romance between two people who qualify for Social Security, but it is also a mystery story.
June 2012 may be the time of the world premiere for Waiting for Spring, but the roots of the present show go back five years. In January 2007, Lampert and Pressgrove collaborated on a trio of one-acts titled Comfort Food, one of which was “Estelle’s Kitchen,” with the same two characters who appear here. In expanding the action to nearly 90 minutes, Lampert and Pressgrove moved the date back to January 2006, and have made the characters slightly younger, now a bit more than 65. The additional dialogue and musical numbers (from five to 10) spell out some details only hinted at previously.
Perhaps the greatest difference between the shorter “Estelle’s Kitchen” and Waiting for Spring is that the two characters now come with a much deeper subtext, an implied life beyond what we see in the action. There might be more expression this time around, but we also have hints of even more emotions unsaid.
Estelle Abrams (Carole Schweid) is a self-possessed widow living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In her opening number, “Breakfast for One,” Estelle sings about how she gets along without luxuries—even though she has a gorgeous state-of-the-art kitchen, not cited in the lyrics. Holding back for herself, she’s working harder to prepare a fancier meal for an old friend, Stephanie, who should be flying in from Seattle, January weather allowing.
Simultaneously, out treading the snow-covered streets is a lawyer in from Arizona, Saul Gersten (Mark Zimmerman), who hopes to find his old friend Joe Abrams. In 2006 people who were Saul’s age had not yet adapted to Google or Zabasearch, so he keeps calling Information, then stumbling from door to door. We learn that Saul arrived in town without making a reservation with barely a lead to go on, as he and his old pal Joe, Estelle’s deceased husband, had lived in Queens. Seeing Saul as something of a doofus greatly reduces his ambiguity and opens the possibility that he might be endearing, even when we’re not sure what motivates him.
As before, Estelle is wary of the unexpected visitor and warns the doorman not to let him in if his looks are suspicious. Once though the door, Saul reveals the sunny, ingratiating personality of a Tucson Rotarian. Every adult in the audience can understand Estelle’s reluctance, however. Grifters pretending to be old friends of the deceased bear a certain relationship to those friendly emailers from Nigeria who hold the key to inheriting the millions left by your long-lost relative who died without an heir in a Lagos hospital. Only Saul tries to be helpful in the kitchen and can even peel a kiwi fruit. Increasingly, he comes on stronger and stronger. Estelle grumps that he talks too much.
Estelle’s suspicion of Saul sharpens. He’s not an out-and-out crook because he really knows a lot that’s accurate and particular about the deceased Joe, but only up until about 1964. So where was he for 30-plus years? And why return now so suddenly? Saul, Estelle learns, was happily married and is now widowed. She sings “A Man in the Kitchen.” The audience begins to think: two lonely people who both praise Joe. Hey, maybe?
Although we learn much from dialogue, the characters speak to us best through song lyrics. Lyricist Lampert, who matched W.S. Gilbert at his own game with the musical Precious Nonsense, favors complex rhythms and internal rhymes. Anyone listening can tell that the words came first, and then the accommodating Pressgrove built musical structures around them.
Having been the music director for Jeff Brown and Hunter Bell’s [title of show], in which he appeared on stage, Pressgrove is well attuned to what flies off-Broadway these days. At first hearing he appears to have something in common with Richard Maltby and David Shire’s Closer Than Ever or John Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. Meanwhile, music director Richard Montgomery leads an unseen ensemble of piano, cello and woodwinds, making Waiting for Spring sound like a chamber opera.
One of the two most memorable songs, Estelle’s heartfelt solo, “Waiting for Spring,” resembles Pressgrove’s work through the whole. The other, a witty duet titled “1939,” about Estelle and Saul’s shared birth year, seems drawn from the theater of Noel Coward. In “Estelle’s Kitchen” the birth year was 1935, so moving the date forward not only makes the singers somewhat younger but it introduces a host of new personae with musical names like John Sununu, Lee Trevino and Paul Sorvino. At the same time, their choice of names and what they expect the other to know outlines some important differences between them. Estelle loves feminist novelist Margaret Atwood, and Saul inclines toward sports figures.
Yet why Saul has sought out his old friend is neither plain nor simple. The maturity in Lampert’s script is measured in more important ways than the ages of the characters. We’re too grown up for fairy tales now.
Carole Schweid as Estelle is a little on the bossy side, something she attributes to her having been a first-grade teacher. She’s indifferent to being liked, which doesn’t signal that she does not have needs. Schweid’s vast Broadway experience (she was in the original cast of A Chorus Line) aids her in fulfilling Lampert’s design that she elicits our empathy. Yet with equal subtlety, Mark Zimmerman’s Saul makes that booming glibness of a salesman a shield to hide behind, not a monster but a man with a secret who might be worthy of redemption.
Like Estelle, Waiting for Spring never stoops to condescension and never wears its heart on its sleeve. It is simply winning.
This production runs through June 17. See Times Table for information.