Who’s Afraid of ‘The Lovers’?

Married for decades, Michael and Mary can barely stand to look at one another and get by through spending time with their respective lovers — until their passion for one another returns.

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click to enlarge Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are the reluctant "Lovers." - Photo: Robb Rosenfeld / Courtesy of A24
Photo: Robb Rosenfeld / Courtesy of A24
Debra Winger and Tracy Letts are the reluctant "Lovers."
Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) have been married for decades, and the bluesy, sensual thrill is most definitely gone. Forget the look of love; these two can barely stand to look in one another’s direction. They get by solely through time spent with their respective lovers, Lucy (Melora Walters), a volatile dancer, and Robert (Aidan Gillen), a frustrated writer. It is curious that each of them sought out artistic types for their assignations, a sign maybe that they were looking for that truly combustible spark that could ignite their bone-dry embers.

But somewhere along the way, even those relationships evolved. Longings for comfortable routines emerged as the new flame leads to that familiar warm glow. And soon, Michael and Mary believe it is only a matter of time before they build up the nerve to ask each other for a divorce so that they can move on with their lives. But writer-director Azazel Jacobs (Terri) pulls the rug out from under them by having them embark on an emotionally dangerous affair — with each other. With such an obvious sitcom premise, The Lovers surprisingly rips off that surface sheen to reveal a sharply drawn complex human drama about the ebb and flow of adult engagement.

There are moments, captured in a lingering, slightly menacing glance from either Michael or Mary, where you start to wonder if their disinterest might turn sour and deadly. We’ve seen that onscreen before, of course. Times when the night was far from tender between George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) in Mike Nichols’ classic 1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where they bickered and sank their teeth into their softest and most vulnerable parts. 

That film — a tour de force that seized five Academy Awards out of 13 nominations —was, without a doubt, a sign of its times; the uneasy transition from the cool façade of the 1950s into the tumultuous, roiling social upheaval that was the 1960s (which came to a head in the early 1970s). In terms of examinations of marital discord, we didn’t see another generation-defining moment in film until Danny DeVito’s The War of the Roses in 1989, but that movie focused on the waning days of the greed-is-good era. There was certainly a potent and compelling wedge established between Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas) and his wife Barbara (Kathleen Turner) in that film, but at times it felt like we lost touch with the characters.

There’s no such fear or concern in the case of The Lovers, and it even finds ways to address very contemporary relationship challenges. The idea of the Me Generation takes a giant leap forward in the social-media age, allowing us to actively pursue self-fulfillment at a touch or swipe of a screen, which we tend to do on a perpetual basis. 

On one hand, Michael and Mary take advantage of texting to set up their trysts with their adulterous partners, and eventually to tempt and tease each other. But they are also holdovers from an earlier, less technologically impersonal time, unwilling to let go of their lingering sense of commitment to their shared past and its quaint familial mores. We see it in their similar decisions for having that fateful discussion about ending their marriage. They want to wait until after their son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) visit. 

Things become much more complicated when, somehow, their passion for one another returns. Letts’ and Winger’s characters express not only surprise at the thoughts and stirring sensations but a palpable fear. Their characters see their plans on the verge of being usurped by…rekindled love.

The delicious irony just might be that their quite organic reacquainting period isn’t all that different from the way social media can also become a tool or a sensual aid for people of a certain age. It starts with a desire to reconnect with old friends and leads to their thinking of each other with intensified fascination until they boldly reach out. Soon, their unease gives way to acceptance and the chance to start anew. There is less fear in crossing the same river twice.

The Lovers dives headlong into these tricky waters, showing us that passion can make strong and fearless swimmers of us all. (Opens Friday at the Mariemont Theatre.) (R) Grade: A-

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