It seems only logical in February to produce a play about love, especially if it opens on Valentine’s Day. The world premiere of Audrey Cefaly’s new script at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park starts with charming Roberto (Marcus Kyd), dressed in a restaurant uniform at Frankie’s trattoria. He directly addresses the audience: “The Last Wide Open is a love story,” he tells us. “And what is not to love about a love story?”
He quickly clarifies that we’ll witness three versions of his story with Lina (Kimberly Gilbert), who is maybe a waitress, maybe a customer. The three “movements” portray similar events that unfold and evolve with different outcomes. We really get three potential, circuitous paths toward love, each one a bit more revealing than the one before it.
Each movement has a simple, amusing musical interlude, sung by Lina, starting with “The Song Before the Love Songs,” which she qualifies as “The Shit People Say About Love Songs.” She then adds, “It’s kinda sad.” Truth to tell, it’s downright funny: As she plays a ukulele, she sings, “They say that there’s a song in your heart … and that love finds a way,” but then she wryly questions, “Who is this ‘they?’”
The first movement shows Roberto quizzical and Lina depressed and annoyed; they’re two people who have worked together for years but have been too shy to get acquainted. It ends in frustration. In the second movement, Roberto is recently immigrated from Italy and barely conversant in English; Lina is a part-time waitress nervously planning her wedding to a man she has serious misgivings about. In the third movement, they’re “adulting”: Roberto is a teacher and she’s a nurse, but they are rooted in the previous movements. They’ve had bad luck in love and wish they’d made different choices.
Their conversations are rendered with considerable humor, sometimes caused by language barriers, sometimes by cultural differences, and sometimes by feelings they struggle to express. As Roberto, Kyd is warm, sensitive and genuinely likable; he offers simple wisdom that seldom gets through to Lina. Gilbert’s character is manic, worried about being alone and simply hilarious in her observations about life and love. Both actors are great fun to watch, especially when they make occasional direct addresses to the audience — soliciting our opinions and seeking our agreement with either Roberto’s optimistic or Lina’s pessimistic points of view.
By the end of the three movements — when things seem to be about to go off the tracks again — Roberto says to the audience, “By now, you are screaming on the inside.”
(One of his teaching textbooks is The Modalities of Human Isolation, which plays into his fascination with what keeps people apart.) Kyd and Gilbert’s endearing performances have so engaged us that we are indeed holding our breath, yearning for them to break through walls of loneliness and finally connect with one another.
There’s a third player, though she’s not really a character: It’s Debra Hildebrand, crew chief of the Playhouse’s props team, who silently appears at key moments to move some furniture, hand over a guitar or ukulele, and accept a hug or shrug at the mystifying interactions between Lina and Roberto. Her role is a fascinating meta reminder that we’re watching theater magic as she hands out necessary items at the precise moment they’re needed.
Staged with considerable good humor by Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison, this 82-minute production (no intermission) is a heart-warming story perfect for chilly winter nights. The compact set (designed by Jo Winiarski) is a quaint Italian trattoria complete with a wine bar, parqueted floor and a view of a vine-covered fence through glass doors that reveals rainfall, which dampens the mood of each movement.
The show’s title comes from Roberto in the second movement. Even with his linguistic limitations, he has gathered that Lina’s impending marriage seems ill-advised. He asks if she has heard of “the last wide open,” explaining that it’s “the lie they tell you” — the same “they” referred to in Lina’s first song — “The big lie about the one chance …”
What he means is that more chances should be explored. That’s the gift of this sweet play: faith in eventually finding the right way.
The Last Wide Open, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse, continues through March 10. More info/tickets: cincyplay.com.